(or, Why the Luddites were right, and Marx was wrong, about technology)
This guest post by NED LUDD of Breaking the Frame is published in the hope of provoking discussion. Responses are welcome! GL.
“Socialism can only be reached by bicycle” – José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende (Chile, 1970-73)
“Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology” – E.F. Schumacher, “Technology with a Human Face” (in Small is Beautiful, 1973)
Have you noticed how practically every critical issue about the future of our society hinges on technology? Whether it’s the global ecological crisis, the elimination of jobs through automation, surveillance and social effects of the internet, or the threat of a new eugenics, technology is critical. Yet public debate about these issues is stuck in the myths of progress through technology and the “neutrality” of technology. The left, because of its fundamental allegiance to those myths, has not got much to say and seems to have a major blind spot in its general methodology of critique of capitalist ideology.
On the whole, the left has learned rather little from the green critique of industrialism, and as a result most left theorising on this issue mounts to little more than bolting on a rather shallow environmentalism. Confident that it owns the master narrative on these issues (i.e. the dynamics of class conflict and capitalism), the left generally does not do much better than asserting that, once we control the means of production, everything will be fine. (Of course, there have been many more sophisticated approaches, particularly from Marxist critical theory; I am speaking here of mainstream left politics.) As a result, at least in industrialised countries, the left has failed to mobilise the working class to defend nature.
From its side, since its fundamental critique is technical (we have a better science, ecology), not political, the green movement has failed to engage the working class at all. Both sides sit entrenched in their own theories and snipe at each other. (There has been a fair bit of that on this blog, and very unhelpful it has been.) Neither side can gather the courage to take a fundamental look at its own basic theory, even in the face of the existential crises mentioned above. A genuine fusion of socialism and ecology still goes begging.
The key to an ecosocialist theory lies in the recognition of the importance of technology as a form of power and in understanding technocracy. For the last 200 years, corporate power has fundamentally been based on control and ownership of technology. The basic corporate business plan has been to erode people’s means of subsistence, by using industrial technology to produce cheap goods. Thus we become dependent upon corporations and the market for the means of subsistence and lose the skills needed to feed, clothes, house, etc ourselves. Naturally, corporations design technology to suit their interests, for example through planned obsolescence and the ongoing process of automation in order to reduce labour costs.
These ways in which corporations design technology to suit their interests, and the overall function of technology within capitalism, are fairly obvious. But if, as I have, you spend 25 years fighting corporate technology such as bio-technology, you come to realise that there is something more. Technology has its own power system and ideology, which I call technocracy, which is not the same as capitalism, although it tends to work hand-in-glove with it. The essence of technocracy is described succinctly by the maxim of its founding father, the 17th century philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon: Knowledge is Power. It is a system of power over nature and people through technology and technical discourse. Of course, this translates into more power and influence for scientists and engineers. In his utopia, New Atlantis, Bacon proposed a formal political technocracy, in which society is ruled by a scientific institute.
With the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, there developed a new set of ideas about nature and human beings’ place in it and relation to it. Whereas previously nature had been seen as alive, with the Scientific Revolution and the work of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes, nature was reconceptualised as a giant clockwork machine. Clocks were the most sophisticated machines of the time, and were viewed as instruments of social order.
The organic metaphor of nature was condemned as a pagan mystification. Instead, nature was seen as merely a set of resources, to be exploited through technology, without any limits or restraints imposed by seeing the universe as as alive, or the earth as mother. The idea of domination of nature, seen as an unruly female, is very explicit in the writings of Bacon and the founders of the Royal Society [set up by the British elite in the 17th century to support science].
The crucial shift that occurred in 17th century England and France was the emergence of a new culture and philosophy in which the control of nature without any restraint became identified as progress, and gradually became the material and economic basis of society. Of course, all human societies have necessarily manipulated nature; but until the 17th century this was always moderated by cultural and/or religious restraints. The new worldview legitimated the authority of Man, seen as separate from nature, to control and manipulate it. The control of nature serves profit and military advantage, but is also a key means of controlling people and creating social order. A key example of the latter is eugenics.
The key concepts of technocracy are technical: materialism/mechanistic understanding of nature, efficiency, uniformity, rationalisation, automatic control, etc. Within this framework, the efficient and smoothly-running machine was elevated to a cultural ideal, and the result is a machine-centred not a human-centred society. In technocratic society, everything is conceptualised as a machine and then supposed to work like a machine, from the largest-scale elements of state and market economy, down to the human body. The working out of this plan for order, the gradual elimination of disorder, difference, diversity, anomaly in all aspects of human life and society, was described by 20th century sociologists as “rationalisation”. Over the last 400 years, technocratic thinking became, together with capitalism, the central element of the culture of Western modernity.
The bourgeois achieves his/her position in technocratic capitalist society by mastery of technology or, more generally, of technique (systems of rules and technical knowledge, such as medicine and law, or of governance, such as accounting, bureaucracy and corporate management), and, as the ideology of the bourgeoisie, technocracy is the pervasive and dominant culture of modernity. Thus, class is fundamentally about mastery of technique/technology, and the main way to rise in class society is the acquisition of scientific/technical knowledge.
Technocracy gives meaning and purpose to modern life through its identification of the ongoing process of perfection of control of nature as both progress and freedom – freedom from the constraints imposed by nature, such as death. The cliché that the idea of progress through technology is the modern religion is all too literally true. In his book The Religion of Technology, David Noble has traced the development, beginning in the 10th century, of a monastic theological movement aiming, through the improvement of technological control over nature to achieve nothing less than the restoration of Man to his state of grace and dominion over nature, prior to The Fall. Noble shows how this Christian transcendentalism has continued to echo through the writings of scientists and engineers up to the present, for example in the space programme and the idea of colonisation of space, and in biotechnology.
Thus, from the 17th century onwards the development of our society can be characterised as an attempt to mould the world, including nature and all of human life, down to its most intimate aspects, as well as larger social structures, into one all-encompassing machine. The central aspect of this, in which technocracy melded with capitalism, arose around 1780 in England, in the form of industrial capitalism. What made Adam Smith’s notion of the market so convincing is that it is supposed to be an impersonal machine, automatically regulating prices, supply and demand, in the interests of all, rather than being controlled by arbitrary (i.e. human) “special interests” such as those of the king and aristocracy. It is also a spiritual concept – “the invisible hand”. The history of industrial capitalism is the history of the evolution towards perfection of the socio-technical system, within which the individual human being really is little more than a cog or data point.
The overall result of technocracy is that we live in a society in which power is wielded through decisions about introduction of new technologies and the directions of basic scientific research – decisions which have massive effects upon the overall economic and social development of society but remain in the hands of scientific experts and bureaucrats.
In the heyday of the technocracy movement, a sign over the entrance to the 1933 Chicago World Fair perfectly expressed the technocratic attitude: “Science Discovers, Technology Executes, Man Conforms”.
Thus we are subjected to a series of technological and economic revolutions about which there has been very little or no public debate. Not surprisingly, popular movements of resistance to the imposition of new technologies, such as the anti-GM food movement, arise in response. Such movements are forced to question the technocratic ideology of neutrality and depoliticisation, that serves as a cloak for the way corporations, the military and the state project their power through technology.
Marx and the Luddites
The best example of a movement of resistance to both technocracy and capitalism is the Luddites; what distinguishes them from later working class movements was their direct attack, not only on the masters’ wage-cutting, use of unapprenticed labour, etc, but also on the machines (known as “frames”) which were destroying their livelihoods. But they were no anti-technology primitivists, as the history written by the victorious industrialists would have us believe.
Their slogan was that they would “put down machinery hurtful to Commonality”; that word implies not only the common people and the common good, but also the system of commoning that was currently being destroyed through the enclosures. They broke the frames as part of a general attack on The Machine of industrial capitalism, as Kirkpatrick Sale puts it. Their revolt, as well as later movements, such as the Captain Swing riots of the early 1830s, sparked a wide public debate in England on the “machinery question”. But as Maxine Berg and David Noble describe in their books on the period, not only were their opponents, the political economists, successful in convincing mainstream opinion that machinery meant progress; the same view was gradually adopted by middle class radicals seeking to lead the workers’ movement.
Marx was, of course, strongly influenced by the political economists. He had many things to say on technology, much of it correct, and much self-contradictory, but for our purposes the key passage is from Capital, volume 3. He criticises the Luddites for giving reactionary governments a pretext for repression, and concludes: “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” I have an essay on the Luddites produced by the Communist Party around 1970, which takes a similar patronising tone, praising the Luddites for their revolt but saying that, unfortunately, they were living before “the rise of the sun of scientific socialism”.
Marxists still like to insist that capital is not a thing, but a “social process” or “social relation”. But, as Noble rightly points out in his book Progress Without People, this is a piece of middle-class abstractification. (Middle class power is always based on mastery of abstract/theoretical knowledge). The Luddite workers who were on the sharp end of the new machinery saw things in more concrete, materialist terms. They could tell that the machinery was not merely an embodiment of class relations, but that the machine principle was a way of controlling people through control of nature, and eventually dispensing with them.
Breaking the Frame
In the early 21st century, after 200 years of industrial capitalism, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the environmental crisis it has created is as much a result of the technocratic mentality of domination of nature without restraint as it is of the capitalist drive for endless growth and its priority of profit above all else. Industrialism is just as much the cause of the problem as capitalism, and the left, if it is to embrace any genuine ecosocialism, needs to abandon its mythology of the “liberation of the productive forces”. Instead of that narrative of progress, we need to realise that industrialism is a 200-year-old bubble that is beginning to burst. (That does not mean that we should or can dispense with industrial production of some goods. The problem is industrialism, the philosophy of organising all production and the entire society according to technocratic principles.)
It’s time for the left to realise that Ivan Illich was right when he said: “The transition to socialism cannot be effected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. At the same time, the retooling of society will remain a pious dream unless the ideals of socialist justice prevail.” His message in Tools for Conviviality, similar to that of José Antonio Viera-Gallo, quoted at the top of this post, is that we need to dismantle not only the social forms, but also the technological structures of industrial capitalism.
More techno-fixes (like climate engineering and “clean technology”) will not get us out of this mess: we can’t let the people who burned down the forest tell us how to replant it.
Increasingly, radicals are moving towards the idea of commoning – the crucial point of which is that is a system of both communitarian/socialist social organisation and conservation of nature. The two things are mutually interdependent, because as this blog rightly argues, the fundamental relationship upon which any society is materially based is that between humans and nature. That relationship is articulated through technology.
The Breaking the Frame Gathering (July 9-12, near Sheffield) is an attempt to explore and take seriously the politics of technology, to look at the ways that not only capitalist social relations, but also the technocratic philosophy is expressed through technology, and what we can do about it. You are hereby invited to attend. 7 June 2015.
More on technology:
■ Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich is now downloadable here
 Carolyn Merchant’s ground-breaking account of the Scientific Revolution, The Death of Nature (1980) provides many examples of the way that 17th century scientists saw nature as the unruly female in need of discipline.