In thinking about materialist theories of technology, a conscious effort to remember the Darwinian model of evolution is essential, especially for the work of Marx. David Harvey points out the total-system approach that lies beneath the detailed writings in Capital about labor, technology, class struggle, and nature. In “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” Engels provides an even more easily digestible explanation of how this total-system approach accounts for the origin of modern humans – an origin that, Engels argues, is causally linked to labor. Engels begins by stating “labour created man himself.” With the freedom to use their hands, early humans developed the ability to create tools, which led to use complex sounds for cooperation and sophisticated cognitive processes for planning. (This being the result of what he calls the “law of correlation of growth.”)
With these unique capabilities, man became master over nature. But, as tools evolved and themselves became increasingly sophisticated, the relationship between man and the process of production changed dramatically: a social division of class separated those who owned the means of production (capitalists) and those who provided the necessary labor for the creation of commodities (workers). This division was caused not by machinery but, rather, by the use of money as a store of value, which allowed capitalist to transform labor from the defining human characteristic by which subsistence is assured into a mechanism that fed itself on surplus value and profit through the exploitation of the working class.
Does Marx view money as a virus that has infected the Hegelian “totality” to which Harvey alludes? Or, is it an unexpected outcome of man’s mastery over nature produced by the law of correlation of growth? I cannot see a reasonable place for money as it exists in a capitalist society within a materialist view of human history; It occurred like a glitch in a computer system, focusing all attention – and intention – towards the repeated task of generating wealth ad infinitum with only momentary crashes that serve as system reboots. Marx would argue that this is how capitalist society becomes unsustainable eventually leading to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. But, the power that money holds and its effect on the system as a whole calls into question the validity of using a materialist theory as a framework for understanding the process of production.