6. Against Technology and Civilisation

Against Technology and Civilization

Even more troubling are the writings of George Bradford (aka David Watson), one of the major theorists at Fifth Estate, on the horrors of technology -- apparently technology as such. Technology, it would seem, determines social relations rather than the opposite, a notion that more closely approximates vulgar Marxism than, say, social ecology. 'Technology is not an isolated project, or even an accumulation of technical knowledge,' Bradford tells us in 'Stopping the Industrial Hydra' (SIH), that is determined by a somehow separate and more fundamental sphere of 'social relations.' Mass technics have become, in the words of Langdon Winner, 'structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments,' and thus of the very social relations that brought them about. Mass technics -- a product of earlier forms and archaic hierarchies -- have now outgrown the conditions that engendered them, taking on an autonomous life. . . . They furnish, or have become, a kind of total environment and social system, both in their general and individual, subjective aspects. . . . In such a mechanized pyramid . . . instrumental and social relations are one and the same.[11]

This facile body of notions comfortably bypasses the capitalist relations that blatantly determine how technology will be used and focuses on what technology is presumed to be. By relegating social relations to something less than fundamental -- instead of emphasizing the all-important productive process where technology is used -- Bradford imparts to machines and 'mass technics' a mystical autonomy that, like the Stalinist hypostasization of technology, has served extremely reactionary ends. The idea that technology has a life of its own is deeply rooted in the conservative German romanticism of the last century and in the writings of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Georg J'nger, which fed into National Socialist ideology, however much the Nazis honored their antitechnological ideology in the breach.

Viewed in terms of the contemporary ideology of our own times, this ideological baggage is typified by the claim, so common today, that newly developed automated machinery variously costs people their jobs or intensifies their exploitation -- both of which are indubitable facts but are anchored precisely in social relations of capitalist exploitation, not in technological advances per se. Stated bluntly: 'downsizing' today is not being done by machines but by avaricious bourgeois who use machines to replace labor or exploit it more intensively. Indeed, the very machines that the bourgeois employs to reduce 'labor costs' could, in a rational society, free human beings from mindless toil for more creative and personally rewarding activities.

There is no evidence that Bradford is familiar with Heidegger or J'nger; rather, he seems to draw his inspiration from Langdon Winner and Jacques Ellul, the latter of whom Bradford quotes approvingly: 'It is the technological coherence that now makes up the social coherence. . . . Technology is in itself not only a means, but a universe of means -- in the original sense of Universum: both exclusive and total' (quoted in SIH, p. 10).

In The Technological Society, his best-known book, Ellul advanced the dour thesis that the world and our ways of thinking about it are patterned on tools and machines (la technique). Lacking any social explanation of how this 'technological society' came about, Ellul's book concluded by offering no hope, still less any approach for redeeming humanity from its total absorption by la technique. Indeed, even a humanism that seeks to harness technology to meet human needs is reduced, in his view, into a 'pious hope with no chance whatsoever of influencing technological evolution.' [12] And rightly so, if so deterministic a worldview is followed to its logical conclusion.

Happily, however, Bradford provides us with a solution: 'to begin immediately to dismantle the machine altogether' (SIH, p. 10). And he brooks no compromise with civilization but essentially repeats all the quasi-mystical, anticivilizational, and antitechnological clich's that appear in certain New Age environmental cults. Modern civilization, he tells us, is 'a matrix of forces,' including 'commodity relations, mass communications, urbanization and mass technics, along with . . . interlocking, rival nuclear-cybernetic states,' all of which converge into a 'global megamachine' (SIH, p. 20). 'Commodity relations,' he notes in his essay 'Civilization in Bulk' (CIB), are merely part of this 'matrix of forces,' in which civilization is 'a machine' that has been a 'labor camp from its origins,' a 'rigid pyramid of crusting hierarchies,' 'a grid expanding the territory of the inorganic,' and 'a linear progression from Prometheus' theft of fire to the International Monetary Fund.' [13] Accordingly, Bradford reproves Monica Sj'o and Barbara Mor's inane book, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth -- not for its atavistic and regressive theism, but because the authors put the word civilization in quotation marks -- a practice that 'reflects the tendency of this fascinating [!] book to posit an alternative or reverse perspective on civilization rather than to challenge its terms altogether' (CIB, footnote 23). Presumably, it is Prometheus who is to be reproved, not these two Earth Mothers, whose tract on chthonic deities, for all its compromises with civilization, is 'fascinating.'

No reference to the megamachine would be complete, to be sure, without quoting from Lewis Mumford's lament on its social effects. Indeed, it is worth noting that such comments have normally misconstrued Mumford's intentions. Mumford was not an antitechnologist, as Bradford and others would have us believe; nor was he in any sense of the word a mystic who would have found Bradford's anticivilizational primitivism to his taste. On this score, I can speak from direct personal knowledge of Mumford's views, when we conversed at some length as participants in a conference at the University of Pennsylvania around 1972.

But one need only turn to his writings, such as Technics and Civilization (TAC), from which Bradford himself quotes, to see that Mumford is at pains to favorably describe 'mechanical instruments' as 'potentially a vehicle of rational human purposes.' [14] Repeatedly reminding his reader that machines come from human beings, Mumford emphasizes that the machine is 'the projection of one particular side of the human personality' (TAC, p. 317). Indeed, one of its most important functions has been to dispel the impact of superstition on the human mind. Thus:

In the past, the irrational and demonic aspects of life had invaded spheres where they did not belong. It was a step in advance to discover that bacteria, not brownies, were responsible for curdling milk, and that an air-cooled motor was more effective than a witch's broomstick for rapid long distance transportation. . . . Science and technics stiffened our morale: by their very austerities and abnegations they . . . cast contempt on childish fears, childish guesses, equally childish assertions. (TAC, p. 324)

This major theme in Mumford's writings has been blatantly neglected by the primitivists in our midst -- notably, his belief that the machine has made the 'paramount contribution' of fostering 'the technique of cooperative thought and action.' Nor did Mumford hesitate to praise 'the esthetic excellence of the machine form . . . above all, perhaps, the more objective personality that has come into existence through a more sensitive and understanding intercourse with these new social instruments and through their deliberate cultural assimilation' (TAC, p. 324). Indeed, 'the technique of creating a neutral world of fact as distinguished from the raw data of immediate experience was the great general contribution of modern analytic science' (TAC, p. 361).

Far from sharing Bradford's explicit primitivism, Mumford sharply criticized those who reject the machine absolutely, and he regarded the 'return to the absolute primitive' as a 'neurotic adaptation' to the megamachine itself (TAC, p. 302), indeed a catastrophe. 'More disastrous than any mere physical destruction of machines by the barbarian is his threat to turn off or divert the human motive power,' he observed in the sharpest of terms, 'discouraging the cooperative processes of thought and the disinterested research which are responsible for our major technical achievements' (TAC, p. 302). And he enjoined: 'We must abandon our futile and lamentable dodges for resisting the machine by stultifying relapses into savagery' (TAC, p. 319).

Nor do his later works reveal any evidence that he relented in this view. Ironically, he contemptuously designated the Living Theater's performances and visions of the 'Outlaw Territory' of motorcycle gangs as 'Barbarism,' and he deprecated Wood'stock as the 'Mass Mobilization of Youth,' from which the 'present mass-minded, over-regimented, depersonalized culture has nothing to fear.'

Mumford, for his own part, favored neither the megamachine nor primitivism (the 'organic') but rather the sophistication of technology along democratic and humanly scaled lines. 'Our capacity to go beyond the machine [to a new synthesis] rests upon our power to assimilate the machine,' he observed in Technics and Civilization. 'Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human' (TAC, p. 363, emphasis added).

Denouncing technology and civilization as inherently oppressive of humanity in fact serves to veil the specific social relations that privilege exploiters over the exploited and hierarchs over their subordinates. More than any oppressive society in the past, capitalism conceals its exploitation of humanity under a disguise of 'fetishes,' to use Marx's terminology in Capital, above all, the 'fetishism of commodities,' which has been variously -- and superficially -- embroidered by the Situationists into 'spectacles' and by Baudrillard into 'simulacra.' Just as the bourgeoisie's acquisition of surplus value is hidden by a contractual exchange of wages for labor power that is only ostensibly equal, so the fetishization of the commodity and its movements conceals the sovereignty of capitalism's economic and social relations.

There is an important, indeed crucial, point to be made, here. Such concealment shields from public purview the causal role of capitalist competition in producing the crises of our times. To these mystifications, antitechnologists and anticivilizationists add the myth of technology and civilization as inherently oppressive, and they thus obscure the social relationships unique to capitalism -- notably the use of things (commodities, exchange values, objects -- employ what terms you choose) to mediate social relations and produce the techno-urban landscape of our time. Just as the substitution of the phrase 'industrial society' for capitalism obscures the specific and primary role of capital and commodity relationships in forming modern society, so the substitution of a techno-urban culture for social relations, in which Bradford overtly engages, conceals the primary role of the market and competition in forming modern culture.

Lifestyle anarchism, largely because it is concerned with a 'style' rather than a society, glosses over capitalist accumulation, with its roots in the competitive marketplace, as the source of ecological devastation, and gazes as if transfixed at the alleged break of humanity's 'sacred' or 'ecstatic' unity with 'Nature' and at the 'disenchantment of the world' by science, materialism, and 'logocentricity.'

Thus, instead of disclosing the sources of present-day social and personal pathologies, antitechnologism allows us to speciously replace capitalism with technology, which basically facilitates capital accumulation and the exploitation of labor, as the underlying cause of growth and of ecological destruction. Civilization, embodied in the city as a cultural center, is divested of its rational dimensions, as if the city were an unabated cancer rather than the potential sphere for universalizing human intercourse, in marked contrast to the parochial limitations of tribal and village life. The basic social relationships of capitalist exploitation and domination are overshadowed by metaphysical generalizations about the ego and la technique, blurring public insight into the basic causes of social and ecological crises -- commodity relations that spawn the corporate brokers of power, industry, and wealth.

Which is not to deny that many technologies are inherently domineering and ecologically dangerous, or to assert that civilization has been an unmitigated blessing. Nuclear reactors, huge dams, highly centralized industrial complexes, the factory system, and the arms industry -- like bureaucracy, urban blight, and contemporarymedia -- have been pernicious almost from their inception. But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not require the steam engine, mass manufacture, or, for that matter, giant cities and far-reaching bureaucracies, to deforest huge areas of North America and virtually obliterate its aboriginal peoples, or erode the soil of entire regions. To the contrary, even before railroads reached out to all parts of the land, much of this devastation had already been wrought using simple axes, black-powder muskets, horse-driven wagons, and moldboard plows.

It was these simple technologies that bourgeois enterprise -- the barbarous dimensions of civilization of the last century -- used to carve much of the Ohio River valley into speculative real estate. In the South, plantation owners needed slave 'hands' in great part because the machinery to plant and pick cotton did not exist; indeed, American tenant farming has disappeared over the past two generations largely because new machinery was introduced to replace the labor of 'freed' black sharecroppers. In the nineteenth century peasants from semifeudal Europe, following river and canal routes, poured into the American wilderness and, with eminently unecological methods, began to produce the grains that eventually propelled American capitalism to economic hegemony in the world.

Bluntly put: it was capitalism -- the commodity relationship expanded to its full historical proportions -- that produced the explosive environmental crisis of modern times, beginning with early cottage-made commodities that were carried over the entire world in sailing vessels, powered by wind rather than engines. Apart from the textile villages and towns of Britain, where mass manufacture made its historic breakthrough, the machines that meet with the greatest opprobrium these days were created long after capitalism gained ascendancy in many parts of Europe and North America.

Despite the current swing of the pendulum from a glorification of European civilization to its wholesale denigration, however, we would do well to remember the significance of the rise of modern secularism, scientific knowledge, universalism, reason, and technologies that potentially offer the hope of a rational and emancipatory dispensation of social affairs, indeed, for the full realization of desire and ecstasy without the many servants and artisans who pandered to the appetites of their aristocratic 'betters' in Rabelais's Abbey of Th?l?me. Ironically, the anti'civilizational anarchists who denounce civilization today are among those who enjoy its cultural fruits and make expansive, highly individualistic professions of liberty, with no sense of the painstaking developments in European history that made them possible. Kropotkin, for one, significantly emphasized 'the progress of modern technics, which wonderfully simplifies the production of all the necessaries of life.' [15] To those who lack a sense of historical contextuality, arrogant hindsight comes cheaply.
Mystifying the Primitive