The Emergence of a Profit-Maximization Perspective

To find answers, we have to retrace our steps back to 1494, when some three hundred years after the Indian decimal system was introduced in Europe to replace Roman numerals in order to facilitate trading, Luca Pacioli’s Summa popularized a new form of accounting: doubleentry book-keeping. The latter “promoted the concept of the business firm as a separate entity whose purpose was profit maximization”.[1] For, “the man who devotes himself to transactions on a book-keeping basis has only one aim – the increase of values comprehended only quantitatively.” The actual commodities, “the realities of commerce become mere shadows, they become unreal and the apparent reality seems to lie in book-keeping ciphers”.[2] The path was now open towards a capitalism where finance is disconnected from production.

Its whole intellectual conception and implementation began in 17th century Protestant Europe. The latter transformed the Catholic Church’s concept of money as a passive means of exchange for luxury into the active concept of wealth to produce more wealth. Thus money became valued for its own sake, no longer as a means of exchange, giving rise to a capitalism that goes beyond the mere worship of things, i.e. of dead matter: death itself becomes a means towards an abstract form of enrichment. The path towards our dehumanization, i.e.  alterations to human nature having the potential to hasten our end by making us incompatible with the unalterable principles underlying life, was now open.

Profit maximization must inevitably be based on incessant growth. Thus it must be sustained by increasingly efficient technologies. Efficient mechanisation was enabled by Newtonian physics which enshrined in science the vision of a mechanistic universe governed by rigid laws. Some two hundred years later, the consequent increasing energy production required was enabled by electromagnetism and thermodynamics. The apparent success resulted in the idolatry of moving things of man’s own creation, replacing his gods, giving the impression that life was only a question of matter and of the energy defined in physics as equivalent to matter. That Newton’s mechanics only concerns dead matter, and that doubts had led him to wonder whether nature was alive, were forgotten. Also forgotten was that his theory was developed within a strictly Christian framework. With the erosion of the latter, man was now considered integrally part of nature, but of a mechanistic nature. Hence., so must also be the human sphere, and indeed Newton’s mechanistic vision was extended to it in the 19th century. Around this time, reflecting the stage attained by the finance oriented capitalism, the perception of nature evolved from exploitable matter to a “chest full of money”.[3] Within an exploitative perception, however destructive, there is a relationship with nature, but within a monetary one, the relationship itself is eliminated, is of the order of the dead. To extend this perception to the human sphere would require the deliberate manipulation of populations.

In short, the current tragedy is a consequence of the profit-maximization perspective, in particular of the alienation from life inseparable from it, and of the methods employed to keep this perspective ongoing. With its progress, the need to eliminate life increases, and thus so does the need to use coercive methods. The path towards their elaboration was opened in 1894 when industrialist J.C. Van Marken coined the expression “social engineer”. Individuals and societies are in a constant flux, and ever-changing, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically, as a result of multiple factors, intentional and unintentional. In the mechanistic context, it came to be thought that scientific methods can be applied by anonymous experts to mould man and society, or at least social institutions, similarly to machines designed and modified by physical engineers, as is explicitly stated be Karl Popper.[4] Social engineering evidently de facto discards free will which has no place in a deterministic framework, even less so in a mechanistic one. The non-existence of freedom was emphasized by another influential postwar apologist of the control of populations, Fred Skinner. Popper tried to account for the “human factor”, but was expectedly unsuccessful.

The need for control would become particularly essential within a democratic context.

  1. Chatfield, M. 1974. A History of Accounting Thought. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Press.
  2. Robertson, H. M. [1933] 1959. Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism: A Criticism of Max Weber and His School . New York: Kelley and Millman.
  3. Todes, Daniel, P. “Darwin’s Malthusian Metaphor and Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1859-1917.” Isis 78.4 (1987): 537–551.
  4. Popper, K. R. The Poverty of Historicism. 1957. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.