Utopian Schemes: King Gillette and Frederick Engels

Man Coporate.

He absorbs, enfolds, encompasses, and makes the world his own. He will do more; he will penetrate the confines of space, and make it deliver up its secrets and power, for Mind, the Child of the great Oversoul of creation is Infinite and Eternal. [from World Corporation]

King Gillette, creator of the safety razor and founder of the Gillette Company, was also the author of several strange utopian socialist treatises: The Human Drift (1894), World Corporation (1910), and the unfortunately unavailable The People’s Corporation (1924). Gillette fiercely rejected the corrosive effect of capitalist competition on society, claiming it led to a general loosening of the social fabric or ‘social drift’. Gillette claims that the segment of society capable of keeping apace with competitive enterprise is dwarfed by the increase in the population as a whole. Competitiveness is not, in Gillette’s view, reducible to subjective traits of ingenuity, persistence, et cetera, but is defined by the degree of conformity with rational organization exhibited by the enterprise in question, and hence by the leader of that enterprise. The proportional increase of the general population relative to these loci of rational organization implied a accelerating growth in the distance between the former and the latter, an increasing alienation of ordinary people relative to the intelligence actualized in competitive enterprise:

the general per cent. increase in number of competitive individuals in any avenue of necessary production does not keep pace with the per cent. increase of population. As a consequence, there is a rapid increase of those who are dependent on wages, and a decrease of those who are masters or proprietors; and this, in combination with the rapid improvement in machinery for displacing manual labor, is the main cause of depression in business. Hard times are here to stay, and our intervals of good times must become fewer and shorter as the years pass. This must result in increase of poverty and crime, such crimes as have their birth in desperation, and send a thrill of horror throughout the world. Shall we wait till the dagger falls, or is it our duty to recognize the danger which threatens, and avert it if we can ? [The Human Drift p 5]

It was Gillette’s view that all individuals should be capable of participating in social intelligence or rational organization, and that the fragmentation of such organization amongst competing firms was an affront to reason. Moreover, this imperative was not simply the prerogative of those enlightened visionaries, like himself, who could offer a plan to institute such rational organization. Rather, the drift away from competitive/rational organizing centers was at the same time a drift toward a new convergence, one he saw demonstrated in the tendency of competitive markets to become dominated by a small number of massive corporate powers:

the drift of commercial affairs is moving with constantly accelerating force toward a common focus, that focus being the final control of the commercial field by a few mammoth corporations. [ibid.]

The human drift is simultaneously away from centers of intelligence, and toward the corporate power that grow out of them. What had once been small enterprises whose success was dependent upon the unifying power of extraordinary individuals increasingly displaced that power into a massive, depersonalized organizational structure that could increasingly accommodate the reabsorption of alienated individuals as motor parts or cogs.

Thus, for Gillette, while competition leads to disproportionate success for a small number at the expense of the majority, this success is converted into a structure – the corporate structure – that, once freed from its competitive interests, could become a new source of unity great enough to encompass all of society – a united intelligence or united company, or what he would later call the world corporation. Competition, while feeding a dynamic of drift and disintegration, nonetheless harbored the antidote to its own destructive tendency.

open competition must logically result in final control. Therefore, competition has within itself the seeds of its own destruction; for with final control of any product competition ceases. [ibid.]

With the final centralization of control in a totally unified rational organization – a single corporation that would manage all of society – Gillette imagine a realized utopia. The World Corporation would no longer take success in competition as its motive force, as there would no longer be any external competition. They only purpose left would be the continuous improvement of society itself.

Gillette believed this centralization should occur not only nominally, but literally, claiming that populations should converge in cities so large that only one would be needed per continent, or perhaps only one for the entire world. He proposed, as site of this urban convergence, an imagined city just south of Lake Ontario, whose power source would be Niagara Falls. He went quite far in planning out his Metropolis, drawing detailed architectural sketches and street-plans:

Images from The Human Drift [source]

Gillette’s meticulous diagrams of his imagined city reveal a striking homogeneity, in which each building literally resembles a cog fit into a massive interlocking grid. While he may have abhorred the excesses of industrial capital, he nonetheless betrays an unmistakable factory aesthetic in these remarkable sketches.

The image of the cog is more than a superficial conceit. Rather, it is a design paradigm that penetrates into the deepest tissues of the social fabric: the intimate experiential level of individual life. For Gillette, the human drift, in stripping the masses of the unique traits that define ‘intelligent’ individuals, reduced them to the status of blank, pliable machinic parts that required integration into a larger mechanism. And this pliability encompassed not only their laboring capacity, but the entirety of their being: mass individuals may have sensory capacities and organs, but they progressively lose the motive force that directs and uses these organs, their motor parts are dispossessed as they drift not only from centers of organization in society, but from themselves as unique individual self-motivating centers. Mass individuals would in time become increasingly loosened, increasingly unstable bundles of motor and cognitive capacities without a motivating program to put them to work, to make something of them. (On limb loosening, see Kevin Kvond’s excellent series of posts.)

Yet the drift or deterritorialization of the motor, sensory, and cognitive powers of the masses was, as mentioned above, not only a drifting away, but also a drifting toward, a convergence or reterritorialization. What appeared to be a drift toward an infinitely receding horizon would prove to otherwise, instead destined to reach a point of maximal extension coinciding with the reversal of motion and return to the source: organizing centers of intelligence as motive force. And because this force would becoming increasingly unified in corporate powers always growing in size while shrinking in numbers, the loosened limbs of the masses would become reattached to the new collective intelligence engines as the organs of a new super- and trans-human organism: Man Coporate.

You may better understand ” World Corporation” if your attention is directed to the Corporate Man who represents the incorporated people of the earth,—upwards of four billion human beings. This great body and mind and soul is a highly specialized individuality with acute and wonderful perceptive senses. His eyes are the corporate eyes of the world, and he sees all that they see that is worth seeing; he hears all that all the individuals in the world hear that is worth hearing; he scents all that all the individuals in the world scent; he tastes all that all the individuals in the world taste; he feels all that all the individuals in the world feel. It could not be otherwise, for all his senses are the combined senses of all the individuals in the world. His body and brain combine four billion human atoms which can only find expression through his highly specialized senses.

Look again at this great corporate body and mind! See how the brain reasons, sifts, examines, weighs, and discriminates in its judgment, which, when given, is final; for it is the judgment of the highest specialized intelligence of man. See those enormous arms. They are the arms and muscles of the world combined in one great corporate body, directed in their manual labor and skill by the wonderful corporate brain. Does it occur to you how nearly like unto yourself is this great anatomical structure? Like you its mind comes in contact with nature and nature’s laws through its senses of perception. Like you it reasons, sifts, analyzes, and discriminates and accepts or rejects. Like you its mind and body is made up of billions of living cells which live their life and die and pass away, their place being taken by other cells. In the case of the great World Corporate Body and Mind, the billions of living cells are the billions of human beings that inhabit the earth, who live their allotted time and die, others being born to take their place, each contributing its intelligence to the great corporate mind. Thus does the whole material structure of the great corporate body and mind change every few years; but the knowledge, memory, accumulating intelligence, and soul of this great corporate body, which constitutes its individuality and life, lives on and on, until the world grows old and night descends. [World Corporation p 94-6, bold mine]

Such a remarkable, even brilliant madness! Remarkable for its sincere speculation whose proto-science-fictional weirdness cannot but seem startling even today. Brilliant for the lucidity of its foresight concerning the plasticity of phenomenological coordination, and the possibility of a massive ‘re-wiring’ of the human mind from its discrete limitation into a massively integrated system – a possibility which now appears not only evident, but manifest with the appearance and progression of the Cloud.

Nonetheless, Gillette again betrays his industrial context in his conflation of coordination with control, or what is also known as the anthropic delusion of mastery, or the classical theory of technology. Gillette unsurprisingly holds the view that the coordination of a system is necessarily top-down, driven by an organizing center that reduces its periphery to the carriers of its program. Intelligence is, for Gillette, more than the capacity to find the most efficient and rational means of accomplishing a task, but simultaneously the capacity to assign a task or motive, a final cause or telos, which acts as the locus around which means are organized. Control is thus the capacity to subsume a region of existence under a motive power, or to warp the space of actuality by way of a hypothetical or virtual point whose gravity draws everything within range toward it.

Yet this is not the only form of coordination, nor is it primary. Nature itself has no motive or telos, but is drift itself. Out of infinite drift, trajectories can randomly coagulate into unintentional or accidental processes of organization, which, given sufficient cases, can express the small but real probability that massive complexity can derive from aimless ‘trial and error’. This is of course the great lesson of Darwinian evolution. Moreover, processes of centralized or intentional systems can only arrive as distant descendants of originary accidental organizations, and hence belong to the latter as a sub-class. What, from the prerogative of ‘intelligence’ looks like the expression of a free and autonomous will is in fact only a pretense serving as the occasional expression of an encompassing accidental drift. Centers of intelligence become decentered, reconceived as local catalysts embedded in a universal drift.

Due to his high-industrial prerogative on control, Gillette could not but place the corporation – the paradigm of control disembodied, abstracted from its human avatars and allowed to assemble a new body for itself – at the center of his utopian vision. Remarkably, he poses corporatism against capitalism, rather than recognizing in the former capitalism tout court. For Gillette, market forces and competition were allies of drift and decay, the antithesis of rational organization driven by intelligence, even if society was obliged to pass through this antithesis to attain a finally United Intelligence. Yet capitalism is not identical to competition and the market – it is rather that occult agglomeration of a cancerous dynamic that finally instrumentalizes drift itself in the name of control. No longer fixing control on a substantial goal, capitalism makes the expansion of control by way of drift the only motive force. Hence, the dynamic Gillette describes in which drifting away is also drifting towards does not mark a fundamental break with capitalism, but rather captures its essential dynamic.

Gillettte dreamed of a final expulsion of drift from the human condition, and the arrival at a destined fixation that would carry humanity until its final extinction. What he failed to see was the fundamental complicity between corporatism and drift, an oversight caused by his misidentification of capitalism and competition. Competition in the service of control of course can become a bloody and ruthless affair, but the solution is not to purge control of its competitive urges. Rather, the approach should be to free competition from its controlled constriction. Competition without purpose would not seek a brutal domination of competitors, but only an endless perpetuation of itself, its dynamic and the multiplicity of competitors which express it. This sort economy – a market economy distinct from capital’s anti-market economy – would return intelligence to an instrument of drift, sundering its fetishization of control. Rationality without purpose, or reason-without-reason, becomes a processes of endless experimentation with possible organizations, whose only motive force is to perpetuate experimentation or to unfix every end, to continuously loosen every arrangement. It would amount to a subordination of control to drift, as opposed to capital’s subordination of drift to control.

In this regard, we can see the manner in which Gillette’s utopian vision falls prey to the same vulgar ambition that Engels so decisively denounced only decades prior, in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Engels regarded the tradition of Utopian Socialism as ultimately doomed for its dependence on the ‘genius’ of irreconcilable individual visions, whose purely delusional detachment from practical or empirical rigor made choosing amongst them impossible:

The Utopians’ mode of thought has for a long time governed the Socialist ideas of the 19th century, and still governs some of them. Until very recently, all French and English Socialists did homage to it. The earlier German Communism, including that of Weitling, was of the same school. To all these, Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another. Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism, which, as a matter of fact, has up to the present time dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England. Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook. [bold mine]

The comical contestation of ‘absolute truths’ was futile not only for its solipsistic immersion in pure theory, without regard to its actual implementation, but due to its lack of theoretical rigor as well. For Engels, theory must be dialectical, meaning absolute truth is inseparable from its emergence within practical, material instantiation. There was no pure, intellectual intuition by way of which one could access the true, ideal organization of society, because the emergence of this organization is inseparable from the process by which it is implemented. There is no finally achieved perfect society which we must envision, enshrine as telos, and then install as the motive force around which the means of actualization are organized. Rather, man’s existence cannot be subordinated to the ideal deduced by pure reason alone, as the latter becomes a purely contingent effect produced by the material processes in which the former is embedded. The idealist vision of social progress would thereby give way to a scientific vision: “now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man’s ‘knowing’ by his ‘being’, instead of, as heretofore, his ‘being’ by his ‘knowing’.”

Instead of fixing socialism as an a priori utopian ideal, the former can only be the contingent outcome of the concrete struggle to resolve the antagonisms that exposed society to drift and decay. There is no way of deducing what the ideal society will be, and then of simply figuring out how to attain it. Rather, there is no ideal that is not generated as the concrete product of actual, material struggle – in other words, socialism would be inseparable from the process by which it is realized, and as Engels says with Marx in The German Ideology, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Thus, while Gillette’s corporate utopia, in which human beings are reduced to the material extension of corporate intelligence, may appear similar to Engels’s infamous endorsement of the ‘administration of things’ that would replace government, there is a crucial difference. For Gillette, there remains an essential dichotomy between the corporate intelligence as center of control, and its material body composed of the ‘things’ that were once part of integrated human individuals. Yet for Engels, the administration of things can only emerge once control has fully consumed itself:

When, at last, [the State] becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out. [bold mine]

Gillette envisioned drift as a self-cancelling process, in which the eclipsing of control by accelerating drift would finally culminate in a total dissemination, at which point drift becomes terminally extended or taut, slowing to total rest and revealing drifting-away as always already a drifting-toward, finally attained in the complete consolidation of control bereft of its division by competition (or the drift internal to the expression of intelligence, splitting it against itself). Once drift is maximally extended, competition is totally resolved and materiality is left inert, having dispelled its aberrant resistance to consolidation in toto. Engels held an almost symmetrically opposed view. He foresaw control as the self-cancelling process: control was always sustained by the minimal maintenance of a segment of society with ‘no place’ within the rational ‘totality’ of organized means. Once control – exemplified in the State – completely encompassed society, representing the real totality of interests, the essentially antagonistic character of this totality could no longer be denied. While the State was ostensibly that which fixed as telos the ideal or rational interest of the whole of society, the fact was that there was no such all-encompassing rational interest. Rather, taken to the extreme, the rational interests of the different classes were essentially contradictory and hence irreconcilable – in short, there was no encompassing interest, no ideal purpose, and the only way to resolve the antagonistic ends of the different classes was to dissolve the entire social organization in which classes were so constituted. By finally forcing the State to explicitly confront this antagonism, this impossibility of reconciliation, this recognition of that control would ceaselessly produce a surplus of resistance or drift that could never be integrated, the State as control in the flesh would consume itself and fall lifelessly into the unintentional drift of material processes. At this point, the administration of things reveals itself as the immanent or accidental coordination of material processes freed from their subordination to control.

The administration of things does not mean the administration of things by people, but the administration of things – now including people as totally resolved into their material infrastructure or identity with cosmic drift – by themselves, a sort of acephalous and undirected administration. Yet Engel’s vision is no less problematic than Gillette’s, a fact belied by their ultimate symmetry. The problem with Engels is a paralyzing incompletion, a failure to describe the dynamic between control and drift as more than abstract negation. Even if scientific socialism refuses to provide a substantial vision of the ideal for which it strives, it nonetheless defines this ideal abstractly as the absence of control, or as its total immanentization as the ‘natural’ control of things by things. This empty ideal ultimately proved even more dangerous than the predicted clamour of absolutes that would arise from utopian socialism in practice, culminating in the terrifying death march of Sovietism, first with Stalin’s purges, then with Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In both cases, the empty locus of communism motivated what Badiou calls the destructive passion for the real, the drive to peel away every superficial layer of reality in an attempt to reach the ideal core they obfuscated…which only ever found the fragments of a ruined world where utopia was expected.

In short, Engels erred in maintaining total immaentization as the purpose or motive force which should finally organize man’s liberation from himself. He erected immanetization itself as the transcendent ideal prescribing a meta-control in the name of undoing control, and so no matter how vigorously the state attempted to totally encompass society, it was only ever society that whithered away, leaving an increasingly obsessive and paranoid State. The State refused to die out because the pure form of this death as imperative required the maintenance of control to sustain its prescriptive valence, otherwise any number of other forces could step in to fill the vacuum with a new imperative and a new control.

Socialism, which was conceived as an essentially intermediary stage preceding total liberation, could not be scientific, because it necessarily preserved the form of prescription, even while refusing to assign it any content. Science cannot decide a priori what its outcome will be; it cannot prescribe any outcome, it can only make tentative predictions. Science is not an intermediary preceding some imagined culmination or completion, it is not instrumentalized in the name of total self-transparency. Science is, on the contrary, the intermediary itself once it no longer requires any fixation by the end. Science has no goal but to continue doing science, to continue theorizing and experimenting – and experimentation is really only theory externalized, cognition no longer restricted to an individual brain, but distributed into the things themselves. To call this a goal is wrong, because it is already achieved; to call it a purpose is vulgar, because it does not pretend to justify itself, it simply carries on without justification.

Scientific socialism is oxymoronic, because socialism is always the anticipation of communism, or the total resolution of social antagonisms. Socialism maintains the empty form of prescription, even while refusing to speculate on its content. What would be needed is the theoretical inventiveness of the utopian socialists, but without pretense of absolute fixation; a utopian speculation totally submitted to an ethic of experimental immanentization; a utopia that locates itself in the endless passage toward its own ungrounding, or the total submission to drift and decay. Utopia as the unbinding of every normative fixation in the name of the complete resolution of practice into experiment without end: scientific utopianism. A society born of the decaying corpse of a state that does not cleanly wither away, persisting as a laboratory for experimental heresy, a putre-factory producing temporary futures from the ruins of a dead world.

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7 Responses to Utopian Schemes: King Gillette and Frederick Engels

  1. kvond says:

    AMAZING POST. I believe you have found the counterpart to the Panopticon.

    The Hive.

    • reidkane says:

      Thanks Kevin! I have been thinking a lot about the Panopticon lately…David Harvey has an interesting suggestion, in the appendix to his Spaces of Hope, of a sort of Orwellian monitoring system that, instead of being controlled by some group in power, is open to everyone, making all of society transparent to every member… Maybe that would be way to undo panopticism: reveal that there is no external gaze, but only the distributed gaze of society upon itself as filtered through its atomic components… Once you cut off the hyperstitional head, you already have the technology for a new social body. This may come dangerously close to Hardt-Negri style optimism, but its worth considering I think…

      • kvond says:

        What an interesting coincidence. I don’t know if I should be terrified or gleeful over the notion of a headless Panopticon, or a hive of perceptability. A Spinoza perspective would grant that this is already precisely how the ontological/epistemological works, headless organized of filtered through universal perception. Flies’ eyes, everywhere. What it does is upon up (as Negri would enjoy) the entire Machievellian universe of excersized power, but under a register of organizable bodies.

        Certainly though with the vast speeds and dimensions of communication, where a bombing in Mumbai ripples through tvs in Australia almost immediately, or the closing of a factory in Michigan reverberates through Bejing stock, there is ever the sense that what you see here is already manifesting.

        The one thing I would qualify, and I write about this some in my lastest post on Homosapiensism, is that the great “affect pools” of the West, huge organizations of persons whose sole economic duty is to purchase experience devices and then to Experience, the kinds of tidal, ideological transformations of numbers of people, and the reactive, pictorial, aesthetic, really ideological fastening of persons is greater than ever before.

  2. Eric says:

    not sure if your aware, the people’s corporation is on ebay

  3. Riley Muccio says:

    rather happy to read your blog.Thank you for sharing this good post.

  4. Michele Zack says:

    very interesting post. I’m doing a talk on radical utopians, including Gillette, who gathered at Kate Crane Gartz’s salon in Altadena from the teens through 1930s. Wondered if you know the source of that image with red sky and what looks like Kremlin in background?

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