© Richard L. Rubenstein
The Revolution of Rationality
(From , The Age of Triage, 1983)
With unemployment rising to its highest levels since the Great Depression in both the United States and Europe, it is once again painfully apparent that few problems confronting modern civilization have been as insidiously corrupting or as destructive of the common good as the phenomenon of mass surplus population. A surplus or redundant population is one that for any reason can find no viable role in the society in which it is domiciled. Because such people can expect none of the normal rewards of society, governments tend to regard them as potential sources of disorder and have often attempted to control them or to remove them from the mainstream of society altogether.
modern, worldwide phenomenon of mass surplus population had its origins in the
unprecedented demographic explosion that began in
unprecedented explosion in the number of people can be seen as one of the most
important social consequences of the triumph of an attitude of value‑neutral,
calculating rationality as the predominant mode of problem‑solving in
practical affairs. This attitude manifested itself in what historian David
Landes has characterized as "the high value placed on the manipulation of the environment" which, he tells us,
is composed of two elements, rationality and "the Faustian sense of
mastery." In the
words of the German sociologist Max Weber such rationality involves "the
methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an
increasingly precise calculation of adequate means."
Landes observes that "there is good reason to believe that rationality is
a homogenous character trait, that is, that he who is rational in one area is
more likely to be rational in others." It
is Landes' opinion that this rationality has religious origins, an opinion he
shares with Weber. Weber held that the'radical monotheism of the Bible, with
its tendency to desacralize the natural order and to secularize the political
order, is one of the earliest and most influential expressions of the
rationalization motif in human affairs.
According to Weber, a principal consequence of biblical religion was the
"disenchantment of the world" (Entzauberung
der Welt). Where such disenchantment takes place, "there are no
mysterious forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master
all things by calculation." I
would add that the related phenomena of rationalization, secularization, and
the disenchantment of the world Weber saw as derivative of biblical monotheism
are specifically derivative of the biblical theology of covenant and election
which proclaims God alone to be sovereign. By rejecting all intermediary
authorities and powers that might subvert or divert
Landes further asserts that the rationalizing spirit was complemented by a "Faustian ethic" which he defines as "a sense of mastery over nature and things." As Landes observes, the spirit of rationality and the Faustian ethic reinforced each other: "mastery entailed the adaptation of means to ends; and attention of means to ends was the precondition of mastery." It is interesting to note that the German poet Goethe completed the first part of Faust at almost the same time as his friend Hegel completed what was perhaps his greatest work, Phenomenology of the Spirit. The Phenomenology was completed in 1806; Faust, Part I, appeared in 1808. In the Phenomenology Hegel gave expression to his conviction that all of nature and history constitute the dynamic unfolding of Reason as the underlying unitary reality of all things. Hegel also identified his own age as the era in which
Reason had finally come to self‑conscious realization. Thus, as reason was in the process of becoming triumphant in the realm of practical affairs, Hegel identified the underlying substance of all things as the expression of the evolution of self-conscious Reason.
One of the most important social consequences of the triumph of practical or instrumental reason was that man's ability to produce a surplus of both food and manufactured goods was vastly enhanced. Yet, there is great irony in this achievement for by producing a surplus, men take the first step in making themselves superfluous. The rational division of labor rests upon humanity's ability to produce a surplus. The division of labor also enlarges that capacity, making it possible for ever fewer people to produce an ever greater output of goods and services.
Even before the publication of the Phenomenology Hegel understood the connection between surplus goods and surplus people. Writing in 1803 about the evolving worldwide division of labor that was beginning to make it possible for factories in England to supply cheap manufacturing goods to people in Asia, Hegel observed: "It thus happens that a far‑away operation often affects a whole class of people who have hitherto satisfied their needs through it [their own craftsmanship]; all of a sudden it [the distant manufacture of cheap goods] limits their work, makes it redundant and useless." 
Hegel saw that cheap manufactured goods could destroy the native craft industries of the lands to which they were exported, thereby rendering the native craftsmen superfluous. He also saw that as modern industry and commerce developed, they were bound to have a destabilizing effect on the community in which they arose. In 1820 he wrote that it was inherent in the nature of what he called civil society (burgerliche Gesellschaft), what we today would identify as modern bourgeois society, to overproduce both goods and people. Foreseeing that this would lead to the growth of a class of economic outcasts ‑ an underclass within the heart of society ‑ he described this process in a passage that has an amazingly contemporary ring to it:
When the standard of living of a large mass of people falls below a subsistence level ‑ a level regulated automatically as the one necessary for a member of the society ‑ and when there is a consequent loss of the sense of right and wrong, of honesty and the self‑respect which makes a man insist on maintaining himself by his own work, the result is the creation of a rabble of paupers.
Elsewhere, Hegel observed that, as labor's productivity increased, a point would be reached at which more goods would be produced than could be consumed. This would force factory owners to cut back the number of people they employed. As the number of unemployed grew, society would be faced with a problem for which Hegel saw no solution save emigration. Hegel was dubious about welfare assistance for the unemployed with or without a work requirement. Without a work requirement, public assistance was likely to intensify the poor's sense of dependence and lack of self‑respect. On the other hand, if the unemployed were compelled to produce goods for a saturated market, they would only aggravate the problem that made them unemployed to begin with. Discussing the futility of work‑relief, Hegel observed:
As an alternative, they [the poor] might be given subsistence directly through being given work, i.e. the opportunity to work. In this event the volume of production would be increased, but the evil consists precisely in an excess of production and the lack of a proportionate number of consumers who are themselves also producers, and thus it is simply intensified by both of the methods ...by which it is sought to alleviate it. It hence becomes apparent that despite an excess of wealth civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble.
Unable to resolve its most dangerous
social problems, the tendency to overproduce goods and people while
underproducing consumers, civil society is, according to Hegel, driven to seek
foreign markets for the disposition of the goods and foreign lands for the
disposition of the people. Although Hegel explicitly cited
Writing as he did in the early decades of the nineteenth century, Hegel already understood one of the most ironic and potentially tragic consequences of the triumph of instrumental rationality, namely, that mankind's collective ingenuity could act as an anonymous, indifferent force that would exclude an ever‑increasing number of men and women from productive work and, hence, a meaningful life in the communities in which they were born. Nevertheless, Hegel did not consider what might happen when new territories were no longer available to absorb the world's surplus people. As we have seen, Hegel did foresee that the rationalization of the economy and society would almost inevitably lead to what we today would regard as mild strategies of population elimination such as emigration and colonization, but he could not possibly have foreseen how widespread the problem or how draconian the administrative measures employed in dealing with it might become.
An important aspect of both the rationalization of the economy and society and the rise of the phenomenon of surplus population in modern times has been the development of a universal money economy. Unfortunately, as money came to be the measure of all that is real, people without money became unreal. Thus Hegel wrote:
The object is here something that has meaning according to its [money]
value, not for itself, not in relation to the need. . .A person is real to the
extent to which he has money . . .The formal principle of reason is to be
found here. . . it is the abstraction from all particularity, character,
historicity, etc., of the individual.
If, however, "a person is real to the extent that he has money," then a person without money is fated to have no social reality and, ultimately, perhaps no reality at all. As early as 1651, Thomas Hobbes argued that the market alone determines the worth of a man:
The Value, or Worth of a man, is as of all other things, his
Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the
use of his Power: and therefore not absolute but a thing
dependent on the need and judgement of another . . .
And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the
buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men
do,) rate themselves [sic] at the highest Value they can;
yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.
The world Hobbes describes is one in which a man’s labor power is a commodity offered for sale and a man’s worth is no more nor less than the market price of that labor power. In a passing remark Hobbes observes, “For a man’s labor is also a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing.” If, however, Hobbes is correct, those whose labor fetches no price are worthless, in contemporary parlance, redundant. Thus, as the economy and society became ever more rationalized, a development already underway in Hobbes’ lifetime, it was inevitable that money would become more real than people.
Moreover, a money economy is both rationalizing and desacralizing. Where such an economy is fully operative, little or nothing can legitimately be valued according to any standard other than money. Everything is disenchanted and everything is regarded as having its price. In a perfectly rationalized economy, no extrinsic value, not even the laws of a God of justice and morality can function as a credible restraint on the absolutely free functioning of the marketplace. This is implied in Weber’s observations concerning the nature of a money economy:
The market community as such is the most impersonal relationship
of practical life into which human beings can enter with one
another. . . The reason for the impersonality of the market is
its matter‑of‑factness, its orientation to the commodity and only to
that. Where the market is allowed to follow its own tendencies, its
participants do not look towards the persons of each other but only
towards the commodity; there are no obligations of brotherliness or
reverence, and none of those spontaneous human relations that
are sustained by personal unions. They all would just obstruct the
free development of the bare market relationship.…
Weber concludes his observations with a restrained comment in which we can discern his own judgment concerning the economic and social transformations that have yielded the modern world: "Such absolute depersonalization is contrary to all elementary forms of human relations."
The depersonalization brought about by the modern rationalizing consciousness has long been the subject of serious reflection by social theorists. The late Benjamin Nelson has described the transition to the modern period as one "from tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood." Others have characterized the transformation as having involved a shift from Gemeinschafl, a type of organic social relationship of those who share common origins, morals, beliefs and inherited institutions, to Gesellschaft, a type of relationship characterized by the rational and impersonal pursuit of self‑interest on the part of isolated, self‑seeking individuals bound to each other solely by contractual relations (Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber). Other formulations include the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity (Durkheim), and from a traditional subsistence economy to a self‑regulating market economy (Karl Polanyi). Every major social theorist has stressed the revolutionary character of the transformation. Polanyi has described it as follows:
The industrial revolution was merely the beginning of a revolution
as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians,
but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all
human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities... All transactions are turned into money transactions ‑ a market system, self‑regulating, must be allowed to function ‑ for the first time the natural and human substance of society are turned into commodities. Everything is for sale and nothing has any worth other than its market price.
Nevertheless, not one of these theorists has made his central concern the question of whether those historical events which have involved mass population elimination in modern times are an intrinsic rather than an accidental feature of the modernization process. It is this author's considered opinion that both the rise of large‑scale surplus populations and the various strategies that have been employed to eliminate them are in fact intrinsic to the modernization process.
elimination programs can be of varying degrees of severity. The least radical
have involved revocation of the target population's customary rights of land
tenure, as has occurred whenever peasants have been evicted in order to
facilitate the shift from subsistence farming to the raising of a cash crop for
the market. More radical programs have involved the segregation or
incarceration of target populations. These have taken the form of the
compulsory settlement in reservations, ghettos, almshouses, and concentration
or slave‑labor camps. Even more radical measures have involved expulsion
from one's homeland. Modern mass warfare can also have large‑scale
population reduction as one of its unstated purposes, although population
elimination programs are not necessarily related to the disasters of war.
In a modern economy the "overproduction" of people and goods can
often be regarded as a greater threat to economic and political stability than
their destruction. Obsolescence and destruction can form the basis of future
prosperity, as indeed was the case in both
It is my conviction that both the "overproduction" of people and programs for their elimination are an intrinsic rather than an accidental feature of modern civilization in both capitalist and communist societies. In support of this view, a number of historical situations are examined in this book in which economic rationalization had the effect of bringing about the elimination of large numbers of people from their native communities. Some were fortunate enough to establish themselves in new communities that could absorb their energies and their skills. Others were not so fortunate. Nevertheless, their story is important to us because the conditions that led to their misfortune have not disappeared. On the contrary,
from its very inception modern civilization has all too frequently found it difficult to achieve a viable fit between the number of people seeking work and the work available.
situations we explore do not by any means exhaust the subject. Of necessity,
much has been omitted. Nevertheless, the situations have been chosen for their
relevance to an understanding of the problem of population redundancy in the
present and as it is likely to confront us in the future. Little is presented
that is not known to historians or to literate readers. What may be new is the
perspective from which well‑known facts are considered. 1 have attempted
not so much a discovery of new material as a rereading of old material in the
light of the deliberate, systematic, mass destruction of human beings by
legally constituted governments in the twentieth century. In the light of the
rereading I hope to demonstrate the continuity of this century's state‑sponsored
programs of population elimination with older, less radical programs going back
to the time of
.,Moreover, even the
threat of nuclear weapons cannot be divorced from the problem of mass
population redundancy. A world in which ever more millions are permanently
locked out of the rewards and constraints of normal society is one in which men
and women may arise whose values and actions are utterly idiosyncratic and
unpredictable. Were some of their number to gain possession of nuclear weapons,
a not implausible scenario, it would be impossible to predict what they might
do with them. Surplus people are not necessarily people without talent or
education. On the contrary, there are times when people have been rendered
redundant because of their ability. Many of the most important scientists who
. Carlo M. Cippola, The Economic History of World Population, 6th Edition, pp. 115‑18. See also André Armengaud, "Population in Europe, 1700‑1914," in Carlo M. Cipolla, ed., The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol., 3, The Industrial Revolution, pp. 22‑77; Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, pp. 9‑58; Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted. .
 David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus:
Technological Change and Industrial Development in
 Max Weber, "The Social Psychology of the World Religions," in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, p. 293.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Preface to Phenomenology of Spirit, traps. A. V. Miller, p. 14. On the intellectual and spiritual relationship between Goethe and Hegel, see Karl Lowith, From Hegel to Nietzsche. The Revolution in Nineteenth‑Century Thought, traps. David E. Green, pp. 14‑30.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Realphilosophie 1, Die Vorlesungen von 1803/4, ed. J. Hoffmeister, p. 239,originally published as Jenenser Realphilosophie. I am indebted to Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, for the reading of Hegel's economic thought presented in this section. See also Georg Lukacs, The Young Hegel. Studies in the Relations Between Dialectics and Economics, traps. Rodney Livingstone, pp. 319‑397.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, traps. T. M. Knox, par. 246. Reference in the Philosophy ojRight is to the enumerated paragraphs rather than pages. See Avineri, op. cit., pp. 153f.
 Hegel, op. cit., par. 248.
 17. Hegel, Jenaer Realphilosophie II Die Vorlesungen von 1805/6, ed. J, Hoffmeister, pp. 256‑57, originally published as Jenenser Realphilosophie; cited by Avineri, op. cit., p. 107.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B.
Macpherson, Part 1,
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B.
Macpherson, Part 1,
 Weber, op. cit., p. 637.
 Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, p. 40.
 See Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future, pp. 9ff.