Marx, Weber, Robots, and… Bees?

Marx, Weber, Robots, and Bees:

World Making and Determinism Part 2

by Aldo, Monica, Nate, and Pamela


Capitalism is a Giant Ship

In Marx’s writings, he talks about the idea of a human world built on cooperation. When many individuals come together to cooperate in a task, the sum of their work is greater than if each one had been working separately. As such, communication and cooperation are a major part of all human societies, even that of capitalism. But the capitalistic form of cooperation is a different one than the previous kind. Marx points out that “Co-operation, such as we find it at the dawn of human development, (…) is based, on the one hand, on ownership of the common of the means of production, and on the other hand, on the fact, that in those cases, each individual has no more torn himself off from the navel-string of his tribe or community, than each bee has freed itself from connexion with the hive” (Tucker, p. 387). In previous societies, cooperation between peoples has come about as a result of the involved parties having common ownership of the means of production, as well as the fact that the cooperating individuals are doing so for the good of the collective, be it a tribe or community, much like a bee. In contrast, “the capitalistic form, on the contrary, pre-supposes from first to last, the free wage-labourer, who sells his labour power to capital. Historically, however, this form is developed in opposition to peasant agriculture and to the carrying on of independent handicrafts whether in guilds or not” (Tucker, p. 387). Since the capitalistic form of cooperation is in antithesis to the previous two points, in the fact that the means of production are controlled by the capitalist (who directs the cooperative actions) and the fact that each individual is working for himself (as is the capitalist), this form of cooperation is a different form than the historical form of cooperation Marx sees as a part of human development.

This change in the form of cooperation is important to Marx in that it allows for the generation of surplus-value and of capital; “the simultaneous employment of a large number of wage-labourers, in one and the same process (…) coincides with the birth of capital itself” (Tucker, p. 388) This is because the capitalist is the one directing the labour; “He is at liberty to set the 100 men to work, without letting them cooperate.  He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but he does not pay for the combined labour-power of the hundred” (Tucker, p.386). As such, this capitalist cooperation is the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production, and the driving force behind the production of surplus-value. While previous efforts of cooperation have resulted in the production of things for their own sake (Marx gives the example of the pyramids in Egypt) or for the benefit of the community, in capitalist society the world revolves around surplus-value and capital, so cooperation is set to that end and only that end. “The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest amount of surplus-value, and consequently to exploit labour-power to the greatest possible extent” (Tucker, p. 385) says Marx. And this is in direct conflict with Marx’s idea of species-being and determination, as we covered in our previous post. In exploiting labour, by both directing the labourers to work in a way that goes against their conscious life-activity and by forcing them to take any job possible just to survive (due to the creation of unemployment – “it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e. a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus-population” (Tucker, p. 422)). As such, the world of capitalist cooperation which Marx builds in his writings is a world which directly goes against his ideas of determination and species-being, leading to a labourer which, in his exploitation, is not truly human.

According to Marx, this extreme capitalism is not truly human:

The way that Marx’s idea of how capitalism came to be and what its future is comparable to Wall-E. Like capitalism was the step after feudalism and is not an end in itself, the humans in Wall-E live on a ship after the destruction of Earth, but the ship is not the permanent home of humans. Rather, it is a necessary step before there is a chance for humans return to Earth. Despite the ship feeling like it was an end in itself, it also contained the means for the humans to make their return to Earth. The humans in Wall-E were ruled by the ship, which dictated every aspect of their lives. Like capital dominates the workers inside and outside of work, the humans were dominated by the technology of the ship in all their activities. However, the extreme technological developments along with the manuals for the return process allowed the humans the possibility of leaving the ship behind. The ship was only a step in the existence of humanity, but not the end itself.


The Bee Ethic and the Spirit of Honey

Weber, in his work titled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has a different view on determination and its role in capitalism. To Weber, capitalist society is not an oppressor or exploiter against what is determined by the human, but is in fact the consequence of a change in ethic as a result of a Protestant way of thinking. “Even the wealthy shall not eat without working, for even though they do not need to labour to support their own needs, there is God’s commandment which they, like the poor, must obey. For everyone without exception God’s Providence has prepared a calling, which he should profess and in which he should labour (…) And this calling is not, as it was for the Lutheran, a fate to which he must submit and which he must make the best of, but God’s commandment to the individual to work for the divine glory” (Weber, p. 106). Protestant society, in their rejection of Catholic doctrines and their belief that people find favour with God through their everyday actions and their labour, was the origin of the idea that labour was not an obligation, but a calling – an external compulsion or desire to labour for the sake of labouring, not for the profit or the need to subsist. Weber gives the example of Ben Franklin’s ethos: “Remember that time is money (…) Remember that credit is money (…) Nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings (…) He that wastes idly a groat’s worth of time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day…” (Weber, pp. 14-16). At a glance, this seems like a purely utilitarian moral attitude: by being honest and punctual, and by labouring as much as possible, one can make money. But Weber claims that “in fact the matter is not by any means so simple (…) The circumstance that [Franklin] ascribes his recognition of the utility of virtue to a divine revelation, which was intended to lead him in the path of righteousness, shows that something more than mere garnishing for purely egocentric motives is involved” (Weber, p. 18) Based on Franklin, this spirit (what Weber calls the ‘spirit of capitalism’) is duty in a calling. Everyday activity being an expression of moral virtues, leads men to labour as a ‘path of righteousness.’ The point is not to labour for profit, but “purely as an end in itself” (Weber, p.18). And while this ethic seems to be in contrast with Marx’s idea of determination, it also leads to the same conclusion: under capitalism, the goal of the capitalist process is not to make enough money to buy commodities and then stop, but for the sake of the process itself.

Labouring is a lifetime contract, and the the duty of the people: 

Weber is much better illustrated by Bee Movie than Wall-E. While there have been comments relating to political/religious agendas in Bee Movie, that is not what will be discussed here. Rather, we can focus on the fact that in Bee Movie, there is a heavy sense of duty in a calling. The bees have been producing honey for 27 million years, and it is the natural thing for them to do. Producing honey is “the bee way”, but when Barry Bee Benson ends that cycle by forcing the humans to return all the honey, he has upset the balance of nature. Like the protestants have their ethic, so do the bees. The spirit of bee-hood is like the spirit of capitalism. In Bee Movie, bees producing honey is the end in itself, not doing anything with the honey, but just creating it for the sake of creating it even if not all of it goes for their own use. Without the work of honey production, the bees do not know what to do and the entire world is disturbed in negative way. The culture of constantly producing honey is so ingrained in the bees that they do not know what to do without it.


The capitalist world which Marx builds in his writings is one of historical consequence: “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with clash antagonisms.  It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones” (Tucker, p. 474). In this view, capitalism was the inevitable consequence of the evolution of feudal society, but through its contradictions and failings, is also just another step in the evolution of human history, not the final destination. For Weber, the capitalist world is the result of a fundamental change in ethic, and although the influence of religion and religious compulsion to labour has faded over the years, that ethic has already been institutionalized into society. “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling, we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order (…) In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that cloak should become an iron cage” (Weber, p. 123). As a result, to Weber this world is inescapable, “perhaps (…) until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (Weber, p. 123). In this vein, while Marx and Weber agree on the current situation of society dominated by commodities and the capitalist mode of production, where “material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history” (Weber, p. 124), Weber’s world-building results in a far bleaker view of the future. Marx believes that the fall of capitalism is inevitable – Weber claims the opposite. For “today the spirit of religious asceticism (…) has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer” (Weber, p. 124).

10 thoughts on “Marx, Weber, Robots, and… Bees?

  1. I thought your comparison of capitalism to Wall-E was really insightful. Its made me think, and Wall-E actually reflects Marx’s concept of capitalism in more ways than you listed. According to Marx, under capitalism laborers become deformed, weak in body and mind. In Wall-E, the people become lazy and helpless, so used to having things done for them that they are unable to do anything on their own. Under capitalism, workers become used to terrible working conditions and accept them, because it’s the only way they can survive. In Wall-E, everyone lives on the ship because Earth is uninhabitable and they have no other place to go, so they accept it and get used to it. However, the people in the movie Wall-E required an outside force (Wall-E) to “rock the boat,” so to speak, and make progress possible (or else the machines would have kept control and prevented them from ever returning–much as capitalists keep control of the workers to prevent them from overthrowing the system). Does modern capitalism need the same sort of outside force to disrupt the current state of affairs? If so, what might it be, since it seems that everything is influenced by capitalism now?


  2. I really enjoyed the movie references.
    I think Wall-E did a fantastic job of showing capitalist society. While a student such as myself might be shocked at the atrophied humans communicating only with their screens, I’m typing this at my laptop as I sit at the desk I’ve bee sitting at all quarter. While I might dislike the ease with which Buy-N-Large influences those humans’ desires, I’ve been searching for oversized, chunky-knit sweaters after seeing ads and people wearing them. While I might get creeped out by the idea of a robot ship controlling society, capital drives the society I live in.
    And The Bee Movie is an excellent example of the spirit of capitalism. It also attempts to answer a fascinating question: what would happen if we stopped? What would happen if suddenly our consumption was no longer driven by the same insatiableness that drives production in pursuit of surplus-value? We’d still be left with the spirit of capitalism. We’ve been conditioned to find fulfillment in restless work, so we’d all experience the socioemotional crisis being experienced by the industrial reserve army.


  3. I never thought about how the technology in Wall-E could be compared to capitalism but it makes sense. Even today, technological advances are dictating how we live life, not necessarily in all aspects, but humans rely so much on technology that it may eventually turn into a capitalistic invisible hand. I use my iPhone to wake up in the morning, check the weather so I can decide what clothes to wear, and to know what time it is so I won’t be late for class. While those could be considered “necessities,” I also use it to watch Netflix and listen to music, so I spend my leisure time on it as well. Technology has control over most of my days, in those respects, and when past iPhones have slowed down after updates that weren’t meant for older models, I’m forced (not really, but kind of) to buy a newer model so I can keep depending on technology instead of trying to be independent of capitalism’s role in my life.

    Also loved the Bee Movie analysis! It really makes it seem like capitalistic exploitation is necessary for society to carry on. Even though the bees didn’t do much with honey, the process to make it requires that they pollinate and eventually humans exploit that labor and benefit by gaining honey and beautiful flowers and produce that went away when the bees stopped working. This hierarchy in society seems to require the exploitation of workers, which, like you said, corresponds to Weber’s views on capitalism and the iron cage, whereas who knows what will happen if capitalism inevitably ends like Marx believes it will. Thanks for the post; I love movie references!


  4. The incorporation of Wall-E and the Bee Movie were very helpful with the analysis. I feel like both movies respectively illustrated the effects of capitalism and the spirit of capitalism, but to the extreme. Marx writes how capitalism creates an exploited worker who is, in some ways, inhuman. In Wall-E, Earth was nearly destroyed due to the capitalistic social structure that dominated the planet. What we see left of the human species are lazy people who are out of touch with nature and who are still relying on technology. In some ways, this isn’t far removed from our current society. Communication is dominated by technology just like in Wall-E. Scientists have taken steps to artificially produce meat similarly to how Wall-E humans drink liquids that taste like fast food. Currently, climate change is a huge issue as our society debates over how to combat humans’ effect on the Earth, so that our planet won’t end up like Wall-E’s Earth. Wall-E provided insight into how our capitalistic society can lead to the worst outcome possible.

    In Bee Movie, the spirit of capitalism is in full force. The bees calling in life were to support the hive’s efforts in producing honey. Besides the protagonist Barry, the bees did not question their position in life and were content with the thought of working for the rest of their lives. Just like the capitalist who exploited this need to work in his laborers, humans exploited the labor of bees for the production of honey. We see when the bees stop producing honey, the world falls a part. Unlike in Wall-E, this extremity is one that has not been seen in present society. The entire human species has never stopped working. This makes me wonder what would happen if humans stopped working? My guess would be that our species and the whole of Earth would suffer.

    I also find it interesting how Wall-E and the Bee Movie have conflicting theories. With the Marxian analyzed Wall-E, a society driven by capitalism will lead to destruction. With the Weber driven Bee Movie, the rejection of the spirit of capitalism will lead to destruction. So, which theory is correct? Or is a combination of both needed?

    Overall, fantastic job!


  5. I thought your comparison to Wall-E really helped solidify the points you were making about Marx. I think it’s really interesting that you described the ship as a means to an end similar to Marx’s theory about the “something-after” of what becomes of us when capitalism inevitably reaches some kind of end. From the perspective of most of the passengers on the ship, the ship definitely seemed to them as an ends in and of itself, which perhaps makes them distinctly non-Marxian. Of course, it took an active desire and the discovery of a potential for escape to actually drive the majority of the passengers to do something about their situation and return to a “new Earth.” Perhaps this is similar to Marx’s “post-capitalism” which he can’t really describe in detail of how it will look – since it seems near impossible. To make a further comparison, the drive to group together and rebel against the ship’s hold on them could be likened to a socialist movement that Marx predicts, while the movie ends in ambiguity as the humans return to Earth and are implied to begin a new future – but, like Marx, we don’t know what that future will look like.


  6. I really enjoyed your post! Connecting the Bee Movie to Weber and Wall-E to Marx really helped visualize the manifestation of both of their social theories. In Wall-E, it really illustrated the contradiction that Marx sees in capitalism. The more we have economic and technological progress then the more the worker is dominated. In Wall-E the more technologically advanced then the less human the people on the ship become. This paradox is central to Marx’s critique of capitalism. The Bee Movie was especially interesting. The final clip of Barry Benson’s best friend, Adam, is such a perfect depiction of the spirit of capitalism. He worked all his life to work all his life, and when he is given he opportunity to have the day off or pursue whatever he wants, all he wants is to work. All he has ever wanted to do is participate in the capitalist structure and feel useful. The quest to be useful is a psychological problem that is engrained in the Protestant Ethic and therefore in the spirit of capitalism. It is instilled in us early through children’s movies that we should and need to work to be fulfilled. This helps create the type of human that would participate so willingly in capitalism.


  7. Wall-E was a great movie to draw an analogy from. The mentioning of it in the title was what drew me to read this forum post. I like how you pointed out the dominating aspect of technology in human lives mentioned in the movie. You compared the domination of capital to that of technology in the human’s activity. I guess we are in a sense moving to where the human race is during Wall-E’s time. Corporations use algorithms to organize working schedules in order to cut costs and utilizes its workers at best times. As a result of that, our lives and time spent with our families are dictated by the technology that we created. I also enjoy the contrast made with another animation.The Bee Movie does do a really good job of illustrating how Weber describes labor as an end in itself. However, what would make the animation a perfect analogy to Weber’s argument would be a belief or something that the bees totemize as a motivation for their spirit/ethic.


  8. The comparison to Wall-E was very interesting! It made it very easy to grasp Marx’s stance that capitalism is a necessary precursor to communism, as well as how he describes history, which I vaguely remember being described as a single line of progress. In capitalist society, man truly is prevented from realizing his species being because he is confined to the capitalist mode of manufacture, not free and universal production. One question I had was whether humans would be able to engage in that free and universal production in a communist society, or whether there would still exist the dominant mode of mass production. I think on one hand if everyone was left to pursue their own life activity without worrying about accumulating wealth, then it could be possible, but on the other hand, how would society provide for the people?


  9. The Bee Movie comparison was also very good! It puts into easier perspective how in the Protestant society, people work for the sake of working. The accumulation of wealth, or honey, is for a greater good that exists outside of the individual–the protestants saw the fruits of their labor as belonging to God, and even if they weren’t consciously thinking this 24/7, such a mindset had been ingrained that they got into a natural rhythm of working and saving. I understand that society is a consequence of man’s response to his calling and that societal well-being is not a priority, but I wonder what the function of the state would be in a protestant society. Does it have some sort of obligation to ensure that its society is laboring and accruing wealth for God? Would they intervene? I have very limited knowledge of protestant ideologies but it would be interesting to see whether society could be regarded as one entity.


  10. I also found it interesting, as tdrsmith28 pointed out, that one of the films here seems to promote capitalism as the only option while the other rails against it. But I would differentiate WALL-E from Marx’s ideas because there is no capitalist, capital, or worker in the movie. Purely technology and our own laziness is to blame for the dystopia in the film, which seems vaguely reminiscent of the society in Brave New World. Perhaps WALL-E is more a critique of what a post-capitalist society might look like if we let laziness get the best of us, since the technology in the film seems to have advanced to the point of replacing all manual labor.

    Also, I personally disagree with tdrsmith28’s guess that what would happen if humans stop working is that “our species and the whole of Earth would suffer.” Wouldn’t that arguably benefit the Earth as a whole because of the damage we’ve been doing to it via climate change and other lasting environmental harm?


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