Simple questions of technological progress abound in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
In response to our introduction to Murray Bookchin's philosophy of technology, a commenter asked:
What's so bad about Prometheanism? Sounds good to me! Defying the gods, playing with fire, storming heaven...
This simple question actually raises a whole host of philosophical and political questions, so we're responding with a blog instead of a comment, as it's worth exploring properly. In our piece on Bookchin, we were seeking to present Bookchin's views, though of course, we also sought to recover and present those ideas we find most useful. When Bookchin criticises "Promethean, often crassly bourgeois Marxism", he is definitely not criticising technology or production per se. Rather, he is criticising the productivist, progressivist Marxism that sees the expansion of the productive forces (including technological development) as an inherent good.
In this respect, Bookchin is using the term as more or less the opposite of primitivist/anti-civilisation politics, which tends to see technology, civilisation, and the productive forces as inherently bad (and usually, as doomed to collapse, 'die off', and survivalist fantasies). Bookchin doesn't identify either technology per se with freedom (Prometheianism), nor with domination (primitivism). His usage is pretty much in line with the wikipedia version:
In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences.
These unintended consequences are particularly clear in the ecological crisis, but also in social relations. Here, a brief detour into ontology may help elaborate the point. (Ontology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality itself).
“Flat ontology” is basically synonymous with “atheism”, “naturalism”, and “materialism”. The point is that theism is not simply the thesis that a divine, supernatural being exists, but is rather a structure of thought that can come in both religious and secular variants. (...) In this regard, it follows that a thoroughgoing atheism– and I would argue that the work of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris are all secular theologies –has to do much more than show the non-existence of a divine, supernatural being.
According to Bryant, the vulgar new atheists do not challenge the hierarchical ontology of theological thought, they simply replace God with Man (invariably Man; or Reason, or Progress, or similar secularised Enlightenment virtues). So we could say that Prometheanism is to communism as Dawkins is to atheism, elevating Man (or technology, or the productive forces) to God's seat at the ontological table. It's interesting that for the communist heresies of the 16th and 17th centuries, the task wasn't so much to storm heaven, but to realise it immediately on Earth. This was certainly the case with the German peasant's war slogan omnia sunt communia (‘all things in common’; 1524-1525), and the Diggers' insistence that 'the Earth is a common treasury for all' (1649-1650). In the case of peasant communism, the danger of a conservative, agrarian, anti-technological politics is clearly visible. This kind of agrarian utopia is explicitly rejected by Bookchin, for what it's worth.
Does this matter? Who really argues for Prometheanism anyway, now that productivist orthodox Marxism is long dead? Well, aside from the soft 'Jobs and Growth' calls from the left, a recent, explicitly Promethean advocacy has come from the authors of the Accelerate Manifesto, who...
...declare that only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.
They are keen to distinguish this notion of mastery from that of original Enlightenment thinkers, but only to the extent of replacing the clockwork universe of Laplace with complex systems theory, thus reformulating mastery in terms of probabilistic as opposed to certain judgements.1 The Accelerate Manifesto pillories critics as "the tired residue of postmodernity, decrying mastery as proto-fascistic or authority as innately illegitimate." This is caricature, of course, but the mention of authority is revealing. This, we suggest, is where Bookchin is useful. What does authority have to do with mastery of the environment? We're with Bakunin on authority, but this slippage is crucial. Bookchin suggests there's no domination over nature without domination over people. And sure enough, the Accelerate Manifesto insists that:
the fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action
Lest we be mistaken for postmodern spoilsports or inveterate hippies, we can highlight our objection here with recourse to the same source from which accelerationism draws – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Accelerationism draws on a passage in the first volume, Anti-Oedipus. We draw attention to a passage in the second, A Thousand Plateaus. Here Deleuze and Guattari, like Bookchin, draw on the work of the anthropologist Pierre Clastres:
Deleuze and Guattari
There exist collective mechanisms that simultaneously ward off and anticipate the formation of a central power. The appearance of a central power is thus a function of a threshold or degree beyond which what is anticipated takes on consistency or fails to, and what is conjured away ceases to be so and arrives.2
In the language of complex systems theory then, not just any arbitrary configuration of technical forces, ecological processes and social relations is a stable one. There are thresholds or tipping points which tend to destabilise some configurations and stabilise others. Certain technologies reinforce processes of social stratification and instrumental ecology,3 others reinforce libertarian social forces and "a sense of haunting symbiosis" with ecological systems (Bookchin). The notion of mastery over nature is itself steeped in a colonial history, which historically has been inseparable from mastery over the natives:
Despite observing differences in the flora and fauna in both places [America and Ireland], English writers imagined that these two environments were similar in one crucial respect: each was imperfect when under the control of its indigenous population but could be put to productive use if the English could reshape the landscape.4
If we must retain a concept of mastery (and it's not obvious that we should), it cannot be that of the secularised theology identified by Bryant. Rather:
A de-theologization of the concept of sovereignty would involve placing sovereignty not in the hands of a monarch or dictator, but in the hands of the multitude. That is the basic idea of both communism and anarchism.
But as we have argued, this has technological and ecological correlates. It can't simply result from an acceleration of existing capitalist technological dynamics and the seizure of God's throne by Man. In Deleuzian/complex systems terms, we're part of the social-ecological-technical assemblage and not its masters with an Archimedean standpoint outside it. An ecological mastery would be more like that involved in mastering a musical instrument than Enlightenment fantasies of dominating nature (which of course, includes Homo sapiens). You don't master an instrument by subjecting it to your will, but by integrating it into your capacities and you to its. This is a mastery of co-operation, not conquest. The problem with Prometheanism is not the enthusiasm for technology but the blindness to unintended consequences. Ecological thought can't risk such myopic vision.
In the course of struggles just as in any possible post-capitalist world, we will inevitably have to judge each specific technology by its “affordances”: will it help or not? What unintended side-effects might it have? How might it contribute to the shape of our actions? Will it be harmful or not? How will it change how other things work? Does it make any sense in the absence of specifically capitalist social forms? Is it a straightforward obstruction?5
- 1Arguably this simply mirrors the shift in capitalism from disciplinary societies to societies of control, from the regimentation of the Fordist factory to the modulation of the post-Fordist casualised labour market and society of stimulation.
- 2A Thousand Plateaus, p.477, Continuum Impacts Edition; original emphasis.
- 3By ‘instrumental ecology’ we mean treating the environment exclusively as a resource to be exploited, and not at the same time the precondition for society.
- 4Keith Pluymers, Taming the wilderness in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland and Virginia, Environmental History (2011) 16 (4): 610-632.
- 5Endnotes, Romantic fiction.