The Technological Society: An Introduction

Our technological society is not technological simply because we use a lot of technology; it is technological because we have become elements of technique.

Cover of the 1964 Vintage paperback edition of La Technique ou l’Enjeu du siècle in English translation

Introduction, or what is Technique?

Jacques Ellul published The Technological Society in 1954 in French, and it was translated to English ten years later. Yet it still has not dominated the world. And I don’t mean that literally, just relatively, the way Marx’s texts are still profound today even if they don’t “dominate” the public space. But I suppose, like all things, the answer lies in the question. Ellul’s insights into our technical world have not popularly pervaded the intellectual sphere,1For instance, the only reference to Ellul I have ever seen on Theorygram is @fake.ellul with 63 followers (as of time of writing) and 0 posts. In my sharing of his book only one person has commented with a nod of recognition: @fakeandywarhol, who said The Technological Society was “the best text ever for understanding the world we’ve been born into.” I would have to agree.  not because it is not an academic work like, say, Nihilist Communism is not, but because it does not yield conclusions anyone—certainly not intellectuals (except maybe Nick Land)—would wish to hear.

Despite being an almost wholly explanative text, with little in the way of value judgments, it is hard to define the conclusions held within as anything other than depressing. Ellul clearly strives for such analytic focus: “The real problem is not to judge but to understand.”2Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 190. And understand he does, perhaps all too well. 

I say depressing rather than pessimistic because pessimism is, to me, believing the worst will come of a given situation and/or a lack of confidence that something will change for the better. Even so, this implies that change is indeed possible, as it exists within the realm of belief. But in Ellul’s analysis of our technical society, there is no room for hope anymore, things just are. Things will not get better because they cannot get better: not because we aren’t strong enough to improve them, not because the proletariat hasn’t successfully risen up, not because the state is holding us down. 

Here it is important to clarify that Ellul was not a determinist. He makes clear early in the book that things did not have to turn out the way they did. He admits that there is in fact no way to know why things took a turn for the technological when they did during the Industrial Revolution.3Ellul, p. 44. In this admission he argues that the revolution itself did not cause such a change, that attitudes had shifted prior to such inventions and material changes (and this fits with his general theory of the book, that technique is an influential force which eventually, yet suddenly, became irresistible; it stands to reason then that this shift must have prompted the explosive growth of technique in the Industrial Revolution). Here the Marxist in me is not fully convinced, and it would seem a historical analysis would be required to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, I do think he is right that our technological society was not predetermined to be as it is. 

However, and this is the more important point, now that our society is indeed wholly technical, there is no going back, and certain axioms of technique must be adhered to. To put it simply, we need not have become what we are, but now that we are—it’s all over. In this sense technique is in many ways like a positive feedback loop: once society adheres to the laws of technique in one domain, it is fated to come to adhere to them in all others as well. Not necessarily in any certain order, or at any certain rate, but it happens nonetheless. 

Why is technique so all-demanding of its surroundings, so all-encompassing? Is it because capital desires it so, or because the state finds it useful? While these are both true at times, they do not represent the fundamental reason for this property of growth. That property is part of technique itself.

And lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, what is technique exactly? A technique is a means to an end—technique itself is the ensemble of means that produce ends in a society. For example, sewing is a technique that produces, say, clothing, and it is one of many techniques that make up the technique of the clothing industry. Since technique is all about producing ends, efficiency is its ultimate goal

It may be of interest to you, dear reader, that from just what has been elucidated above, you too can come to all of the conclusions contained within The Technological Society. Indeed you could even go beyond them, least of all because our world has only grown more technical since Ellul’s writing. Understanding what is meant by Ellul when he writes that 9 letter word, technique, is all one needs to extrapolate to their heart’s content.4This was similar to how I felt after reading Nihilist Communism: the base idea is so simple and so well grounded that the rest of the book essentially does nothing more than expand and elucidate the concept. Unlike my reading of Nihilist Communism however, which came after two years of reading and thinking as a Marxist, I had basically no background in the discipline of technique, as it may be called. Some of the works Ellul references I have indeed heard of, and perhaps even included in my “to read” list at some point (such as The Managerial Revolution and one more I cannot remember, something like The Organized Man). But as I had not read them, I had none of the background with which to service such a simple but all-ranging definition (and even then, these texts were usually referenced by Ellul in a critical fashion, either building off of an incomplete definition or refuting a bad one). As such I benefited greatly from reading the whole text. 

When Ellul titled his book The Technological Society, he did not mean that technique itself was a new force that had suddenly gripped us and run amuck. It is clear from the definition that technique has always been with us, always been a part of our lives. But, prior to the 18th century, it was only a part, one of many to consider in a given moment. The defining feature of our current society is that it is utterly dominated by technique, hence technological. And now, with definition in hand, we may come full circle…

Technical Development, or the one about Sewing

Once given free reign, technique becomes an all-encompassing force. Consider again our sewing example. What are the means with which one sews? Broadly there are two techniques: needle and thread, done by hand, as well as the sewing machine, guided by hand. In terms of technique, which of the two is better? Obviously the sewing machine, as it is much more efficient. So then, when it comes to technique, the sewing machine is the way to go.

But the quest for efficiency has just begun. Other things play into the production of textiles than the act of production itself: there is the raw material, the design work, the transportation. To maximise efficiency, it is not enough to simply supply the best sewing machines. One must also look for ways to improve these other areas as well: more efficient shipment of raw material in and finished products out, accelerating the design process to reduce delays in production, etc. One could imagine the former consisting of warehouse layout: the position of the machines, the materials, the products, and loading-truck access aligned in the most efficient manner possible. The latter would likely consist in coming up with certain principles to design around in order to make the design process more efficient, perhaps designing with raw material in mind to reduce waste or time consuming reuse. 

Notice that these processes are not necessarily driven by anything other than technique itself; once sewing machines increase production, what is there to do but increase efficiency in these other areas to accommodate it? Otherwise the additional production is for naught. This is why Ellul argues that in our technological society, technique has become autonomous.5Ellul, p. 14.

Starting to sound like we’ve got a pretty efficient and technical garment factory on our hands, no? Sure does! But technique is far from done. Each of these operations can be rationalised further, and indeed they must be further rationalised if efficiency is to be achieved. What of the trucks that are involved? Are they able to be loaded and unloaded efficiently to the degree required by production, and driven where they need to go in a timely manner? What of the roads they drive on? Are they well-paved so as to minimise wear and tear and maximise safe speed of travel? And this design process, how does it align with the demands of the day? Efficient production of useless shirts is not efficient production at all. And now that we’re on the subject, what of the ships and shipyards involved in the transport of these fine goods overseas? What of their design, their form, their function…?

One can see that this process can be extended seemingly without end. It may seem ridiculous to you the reader, comfortable in your daily wear, which is likely so standardised, so technified, you’ve never even considered the processes that created it, nor the history of these processes.6Unless, of course, you are sympathetically aware that it has been produced by a poor child in the third world, in which case, you are undoubtedly a Good Person. And yet it is not ridiculous at all, indeed this sort of process (although not exactly in the way I’ve described it—bear with me for the sake of explanation) is indeed how our technical society has developed. The quest for greater efficiency leads necessarily to connections between different aspects of society, all of which must become technical in order to be incorporated successfully. For the sake of our example, while sewing did not necessarily need to be what was made technical at first (and indeed it wasn’t, the Marxists among us will be happy to know that other matters of economy came first and foremost, namely energy production), once it did come to have this overbearing technical character, it follows that all it touches must too: the roads, the trucks, the shipyards, etc. The application of technique in one area necessarily leads to its application in another. This is the autonomous nature of technique that has existed since the 18th century.7Hopefully my sewing example also shows how dialectical this process is, even the way I found myself writing it seemed to adhere to dialectical logic: sentences filled with colons, one idea proceeding right to the next. Someone described The Technological Society as being profoundly dialectical, and I think I now understand what they mean first hand.

This, of course, extends beyond mere production as well. If production is made technical, that is efficient, what will we do with the new and ever-growing stores of goods? Just as before, technique must be extended: consumption must be made efficient as well. Stores must come to resemble the warehouses their products were made in, to accommodate the scale of the operation. Again, it was not predetermined that, say, the dimensions of the warehouse are what they are. But their standardisation, in any form, followed necessarily from the moment technique was given reign over production.  

Standardisation and planning are other facets of technique that spring naturally from its progression. We can’t well organise the whole of society around garment production, as while it might be very efficient for garment technique, it will no doubt be a drag on the rest. Here standardisation plays a big role in making not just industry-wide, but civilisation-wide production more efficient: universal electrical outlets, standardised road and truck sizes to accommodate transport of all goods and services, etc. Furthermore, this standardisation and planning is not the product of some grand design created by a diverse group of individuals accounting for culture, aesthetics, or human desires. The answers to all of these questions, just like the answers to the questions of how to make the garment factory more efficient, are purely technical in nature: asked by technicians, solved by technicians, all reduced to calculations and mathematics. It is not up to us anymore, it’s up to technique.  

Well, it is safe to say that our little example has gotten a bit out of hand. Please do not mistake it for history—of course the world does not unfold in such a focused, narrow way, but rather simultaneously and at varying rates. But hopefully what it does do is illustrate just how all-encompassing technique is, in the process shedding some light on one of Ellul’s two “laws of self-augmentation”: that technique tends to progress geometrically. Its mouth gets bigger as it grows, coming to encircle more and more of human life. Our little example focused primarily on the mechanical aspects of production: the machine, its layout within the warehouse, etc. But production goes much deeper. There is a human operating these machines. Other humans must be made to buy the products they produce. Ellul focuses on these elements as well, the final large chapter being devoted to what he calls human techniques. These include propaganda chief among them, just to give you an idea. 

For me, this is really what blows technique as a concept wide open. It is not simply the logic of the machine, although the machine is undoubtedly technique at its purest. Our technological society is not technological simply because we use a lot of technology; it is technological because we have become elements of technique. In its near ceaseless but uneven progress, technique has come to dominate not only the production of garments, but the person who makes them. How can a machine be efficient if its operator is inefficient? Therefore the conquering of the individual, too, is paramount to technique’s success. The subjective must be made objective, for how can subjectivity be accounted for, planned around? It cannot, certainly not efficiently. The worker must arrive on schedule, hence the clock and the industrialisation of time. The worker must be prepared, hence the schoolhouse and the standardisation of education. The worker must consume in his off time, hence advertisement, that demonic but angel-faced propaganda that never stops singing.

If this painting seems bleak, that’s because it is. But don’t fear, along with human technique comes good things too! How about that central heat and air? Pretty nice to come home to after a long day of work, eh wagie? And microwaves, talk about efficient! Who wants to slave over a hot stove for hours engaged in the ancient human art of cooking? No thank you, sounds like it might get in the way of working. I like my hot pockets just fine, and they’re ready in a fraction of the time! 

The sarcasm dripping off that last paragraph should be obvious. While technique has undoubtedly yielded material improvements for humanity, they have come at the cost of parts of our humanity itself. It is valid to wonder whether, by the end, there will be any humanity left. Was there any left in Brave New World? As Ellul says at the end of the book: “Here is a future Huxley never dreamed of.”8Ellul, p. 433. 

Prior to technique’s domination and ascendance to autonomy, it was just one of many facets of human life. And it played a significant role, no doubt. Knowing the best way to harvest crops was surely a boon to the farmer and everyone he fed. But there was also a significant difference in how efficiency was achieved before the technique of today. In days of yore, increased efficiency came above all from an increase in human ability. The best carpenter wasn’t the best because he had the best tools, he was the best at using them. This meant that improving the conditions of life came from improving the self, a mutually beneficial, although slow, means of development. And because efficiency is not the primary goal, but rather the task at hand in its finitude, other human considerations could have their say. The peasant could take a break when he was tired. If he felt satisfied by it, he could use the same shovel his father used before him. After all, it gets the job done. Improvements were therefore largely made not only at the individual level, but within the individual themselves, whereas in our technological society improvements seemingly fall out of the sky into our laps, crushing us in the process. Sorry about the broken legs, but hey, who needs to walk to perform efficiently at their desk job anyways?  

“Well, if all this technical domination sucks so bad, why don’t we just stop?” the fair reader may rightfully ask. That’s just it, we can’t. That is the other “law of self-augmentation” I mentioned earlier: technological progress is irreversible within a given civilisation. And how could it not be? What, you want us to stop producing maximally efficient truck fleets? Where would all the garments go? When some don’t even have a good pair of Gucci flip flops to their name—what are you, a monster? 

In all seriousness, once it has been established, technological progress cannot be undone, unless by outside forces (such as the collapse of civilisation, something we may come to thank climate change for at this rate). It may be argued that some favour more traditional methods of getting things done, such as sewing by hand, and that this is a choice that defies technique. Let us not be naive. Such a hobby chosen for aesthetic or otherwise subjective reasons indeed places other values above that of technique, but it does so only in spite of technique’s dominance. Hobbies are just that: hobbies—retreats from an ever-increasingly technical world. They are possible only insofar as every other end has become easily achieved through the exploitation of technique; those who sew for fun only have the time because their food comes ready cooked, their cars ready built, etc. Upon the invention of the sewing machine (and its relatively cheap acquirement), what housewife could bear to hand-sew any longer? “What a great blessing this machine is! Now there is more time for other work, perhaps even for leisure.” The same is said of the refrigerator, the washing machine, the dishwasher. And yet, does the average person find their life full of leisure? Nay, technique is not satisfied with giving us what we want and stopping there. Someone has to make the next big time saving machine, so that there is more time to create yet another time saving machine—and as we are not in control, we do not get a say. Who will tell the factory that enough is enough? The capitalist who owns it? No. The state? Why? The factory that produces cars today can produce tanks tomorrow. It is too important to interfere with, certainly not for something as trivial as human happiness. The individual? They should hardly hear you over the roar of the production process.

What of an organized group of individuals? What of democracy? I hate to break it to you anarcho-syndicalists and the like, but democracy was excluded from the productive process a long time ago. Technique simply won’t allow it. How efficient can any plan be that must go through rounds of voting and approval, especially when the answer, being purely technical in nature, is reducible to mathematics, and therefore not subject to the whims of people?

No, democracy is long gone I’m afraid. Capitalist liberal democracy is just as much of a sham as the worker’s republics of Ellul’s time. Technique forces them both towards its own ends, towards totalitarianism. 

Technique and Democracy, or the one about Water

For those who have googled Murray Bookchin and are as such not convinced, consider this thought experiment I conjured up the other day, to test this anti-democratic hypothesis for myself.

Let’s say you are a member of a small city. You are totally democratised down to the last citizen. As a city, you require water. How will you get it? From the nearby aquifer—well, excellent! But how much do you need? Can the aquifer handle such a draw, or will it be sucked dry? Is the water safe for drinking? Even at this basic beginning of questioning, we’ve generated 1 simple question, 1 simple answer, and 3 more complex questions based on that answer. And even of these 3 questions, it is obvious that expertise will be required, in fields including demographics, hydrology, and health at the very least. But let us go further.

How exactly will the water be brought from the aquifer into the city? If we can expect to enjoy the water much at all, the answer must be a system of pumps and pipes (again, decided beforehand by technique, as these are proven efficient means). How many pipes? How big? Who will install and maintain them? Furthermore, will water use be regulated by the state (in this case, we the people), or free for use? If it is free for use, how will we regulate use within sustainable requirements to not drain the aquifer dry? 

After simply fleshing out one problem of water acquisition, which is just one facet of only a piece of the myriad of problems the average modern city faces, we are already swamped, to be a little punny about it. And in the face of this, good reader, you say democracy is the answer? The answer to what? Surely not the regulation of water use, nor anything else of this nature. “But these things could be decided democratically!” Could they? It is abundantly clear that the state (or some entity like it, for the anarchists) will be required to regulate these various infrastructures. But could this state not be democratic in nature, coming to decision on these questions democratically? It could, but only superficially. Let me explain.

It is obvious that plenty of expertise, that is, plenty of experts will be needed for counsel in such a democracy—how else will the people, the elected officials, whatever, decide how to proceed with water extraction (and indeed the myriad of other essential questions)? Only with the help of technicians no doubt, who will present the political body with all the necessary information, namely the different plans to be chosen from, all numbered and laminated for ease of analysis. There’s just one problem. As we have already discussed, technique desires efficiency above all else. And what does the pursuit of efficiency produce if not the one best solution to a given problem? What is more efficient, hand sewing or the sewing machine? How about an old sewing machine versus a new one? The answer is clear. Therefore, the people will not be presented with several schemes of water extraction to choose from, but only one, whichever one is most efficient. With no options to choose from, what will they vote on, whether to have water producing infrastructure or not? Don’t be silly—at this point us good leftists should know a false question when we see one.

So, not only is an authoritarian body better suited to technique, technique itself makes democracy meaningless by producing a world of singular bests, options that must be picked because to pick any other would be to discard technique and the benefits it brings. Will the people settle for subpar, substandard water services? While we’re extending the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they will. But as we have previously shown, deficiency in one area of technique necessarily produces deficiencies in others. Less efficient means of acquiring water will mean everything to do with water is less efficient, and everything to do with those things will be less efficient, and so on. So when we ask if “the people” will settle for substandard (and we say substandard because there will be a superior standard version used by all other nations who can manage it, in adherence to technique) water services, we are really asking if they will settle for living in a substandard, second-class society. 

Even if (and my, we’re really stretching the ifs here) they are content with such material settling, will the state be? Or to put it in other words, when another group comes along and decides to take the water they’ve so stridently managed as one big happy commune, what will the people do then? Fight back with a substandard military force, supplied by substandard supply chains and composed of substandard soldiers? It is abundantly clear by this that the notion of real democracy has been completely smashed by the heavy but finely-made cudgel of technique. 

Personally, and the realist point made here only serves to underscore this point, I am starting to wonder if authoritarianism is not the natural way of civilisation, and if democracy only appeared on the scene as it did during a time of unprecedented innovation, when it was truly worth it for the state to employ as liberal a conception of freedom as possible to allow individuals maximum ability to innovate. As Ellul says, he who advances technique privately—rather than, say, within the state—advances it furthest. But now that level of innovation is over; technique has rapidly caught up to and outpaced all other motives, and in doing so it now desires increasingly totalitarian institutions to do its bidding. The absolutist state of traditional society has returned but now with the power to fully execute its own will, whereas before it held relatively little within its grasp, and the peasant was more or less free to live in accordance with his own rhythms and routines. No more.

I recognise it is somewhat unfair and unrealistic to pose these problems as if they occur all at once—cities already have established systems for getting people water, electricity, etc. But it should be clear that even the management of these (many of which are not sustainable as they exist currently) will be difficult in a way that requires technique, least of all because technique has contributed greatly to their existence. And it leaves no room for real democracy.

Technique, Capitalism, and the State, oh my!

With the notion of democracy out of the way, let us go further into perhaps more controversial territory. Up until now, for the sake of simplicity, I have been discussing technique using the framework of capitalism. But from the logic expressed so far, it should be clear that even capital has become secondary to technique. As a predominantly Marxists thinker I too was shocked by this, and the shock came early. Allow me to quote at length: 

“It is useless to rail against capitalism. Capitalism did not create our world; the machine did. Painstaking studies designed to prove the contrary have buried the obvious beneath tons of print. And, if we do not wish to play the demagogue, we must point out the guilty party. ‘The machine is antisocial,’ says Lewis Mumford. ‘It tends, by reason of its progressive character, to the most acute forms of human exploitation.’ The machine took its place in a social milieu that was not made for it, and for that reason created the inhuman society in which we live. Capitalism was therefore only one aspect of the deep disorder of the nineteenth century. To restore order, it was necessary to question all the bases of that society—its social and political structures, its art and its way of life, its commercial system.”

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 5.

Writing when he did shortly after WWII, Ellul draws connections between capitalist America, Nazi Germany, and communist Russia quite frequently. Technique dominates them all, and since it always strives for one best method, it dominates them in relatively similar ways. For Ellul, the massive differences we typically ascribe to these three systems of governance are relatively superficial in the face of technique. I think this parallels wonderfully well with Robert A. Brady’s book, Business as a System of Power, a study of economic concentration within both the liberal-capitalist and totalitarian blocs of WWII, published 1943.9Of which I also have highlights of on my instagram page. What both of these works do is update our frameworks a bit by being directly about the 20th century, whereas with Marx we are limited to applying his 19th century conceptions to it.

Upon first glance it would appear that technique is simply a tool of capital. After all, does capital not strive for efficiency? This we must answer in the negative, despite the knee-jerk reaction many will have to the question. But one must only consider that there are in fact two equal and opposite reactions to the question of efficiency to realise how little we ideologues really understand it—on both sides. Consider the first: “Of course capitalism strives for efficiency, it is the most efficient system the world has ever known! It has reduced poverty, increased the standard of living…”10And all the other millions of things Jordan Peterson and the rest pull like a list off the top of their head anytime anyone challenges the system they have worked hard to benefit from. The linked video should start at 42:58. It’s the end of Peterson’s opening remarks during the infamous Žižek Peterson debate from last year, running through 45:10. I don’t recommend watching it for interest in the content itself, but its worth a watch if you wish to be “in” on the “drama” of the “intellectual” world. It was hyped up as the Chomsky Foucault of our century, and despite not having seen that one, I can tell you it wasn’t. Now consider the second: “Of course capitalism is not efficient, we waste an incredible amount everyday, and don’t even get me started on the destruction of goods in response to market forces, say, when millions of pigs were slaughtered in the Great Depression (Culling the Herds as its apparently called)!” Well, which is it?

Technique yields the answer. Capitalism has one overriding goal: profit. While this at times requires efficiency—and hence the employment of technique—at other times it does not, desiring instead the stagnation of efficiency. Consider again our garment factory. Sure, sewing machines, relative to hand methods, are a great boon to the garment factory owner, who would like to sell as many garments as he can (at a profit). But as we said before, technique does not stop at the first sewing machine. If technique had its way, better sewing machines would be made all the time, and why make them if not to use them?11It is perhaps hard to consider from this more antiquated perspective, but look at the proliferation of smartphones, with yearly releases that feature minimal changes. Businesses everywhere have expedited their operations with the use of this technology, but surely it would not be worth it for the capitalist to replace every smartphone he employs simply because Apple made a new one. To use an example from my own life, several years ago chips became standard in credit and debit cards, rather than the magnetic strips of old. And yet just a few weeks ago I went to my usual gas station and found that they had finally changed their systems to reflect this, the machine at the pump requiring I leave the card in so the chip could be scanned rather than sliding it in and out to read the strip as it always had before. This is a small example but it gets the point across: why hurry to make a change that yields no additional profit? But are these new machines a boon to the capitalist as well? Not necessarily. The previous ones are working just fine, and while the newer ones are surely better, they would not be worth the cost, both of purchasing and of halting operations to install them, as well as training employees to use them. It is in this way that capitalism actually ends up stifling technique after a certain level of development is achieved.

Such a process of limited development reflects the truth no economist wants to admit: in a finite world, endless growth is impossible. While there may always be a new gadget to create, the rate of growth always slows eventually, and anyone who has seriously studied political economy should know that this rate is as important as growth itself. This principle is the fundamental reason that all of the benefits capitalism brings always end up withering away until they are no longer a benefit, but a burden that must be carried to continue the operation of the system itself. To the surprise of the unread, Adam Smith himself shows this quite clearly in chapter 8 of book 1 of Wealth of Nations. He uses the example of development in the American colonies to show that, while at first, when growth is fantastic, wages rise, as there is more labour to do than people to do it, meaning that employers must bid against each other for employees. Eventually however, and this is always the case, growth slows, and the supply and demand of the labour market inverts in a double pincer created by (1) population increase (because of the previously mentioned good growth period) which increases the supply of labourers, as (2) the demand for labour falls due to growth drying up, resulting in wages decreasing.

This process of growth and stagnation isn’t unique to capitalism; any finite system, whether it be Russian peasantry on fixed plots of land or natural ecosystems themselves, are forced by the limitations of their environment (both social and natural) to stop growing after a certain point. In the natural world this process is quite painful, as animals who were born in times of plenty starve in the following times of less. This process is also painful in our capitalist world, which demands what remains impossible despite impressive technological development: infinite rapid growth. As such, like the economic systems that came before it, capitalism too has limits to technical development due to fundamental contradictions within it.

A comparison of the different goals of technique and capital, efficiency and profit, respectively, is all that is required to realise these contradictions. At bottom, profit is a skimming-off-the-top of the fruit of the production process. Sure, some of this is re-invested into production, but we all know this is not what profit is used for in its entirety. As such, this means that some amount of resources are not being used to bolster future production. Not very efficient. By its very nature technique cannot stand such waste, for profit represents valuable resources with which to fuel more technical development!

Allow me to again quote Ellul at length:

The pursuit of technical automatism would condemn capitalist enterprises to failure. The reaction of capitalism is well known: the patents of new machines are acquired and the machines are never put into operation. Sometimes machines that are already in operation are acquired, as in the case of England’s largest glass factory in 1932, and destroyed. Capitalism is no longer12Ellul does not say so explicitly, but I believe this “no longer” must refer to the time I mentioned earlier about democracy, a brief but productive time in which capital, liberal freedom, and technique worked together to produce the fully modern world. Once produced, it found no need for the former two, and is instead committed fully to the latter. in a position to pursue technical automatism on the economic or social plane. It is incapable of developing a system of distribution that would permit the absorption of all the goods which technique allows to be produced. It is led inevitably to crises of overproduction. And in the same way it is unable to utilise the manpower freed by every new technical improvement. Crises of unemployment ensue.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 81.

It is clear that technique is not simply something capital dominates for its own use. Rather, technique finds itself on a similar plane as that of capital, and it is here they do battle for supremacy. When they once worked in harmony, capital was allowed to have its day. That was the day of Marx. But now technique is firmly on top, and we can say clearly that we are now in the day of Ellul—although not exactly as he predicted, more on that below.  

Here another question should arise. How can technique operate if not through capital? What other body possesses the means to develop technique to its full extent? There is only one answer: the state. Only the state has the power to orchestrate something so involved with every facet of society. Technique knows this, and indeed that is why it has taken over the state as such, bending it towards totalitarianism in the process.

We must be clear here what is meant by totalitarian. This is not to say that, for example, the United States today is less dominated by technique than Russia because the former is a “democracy” and the latter is “not.” Similar to “concentration camp,” we tend to colour these terms in their most extreme lights, especially when they enter the popular domain under these extreme examples. This is obvious enough considering that just recently the United States’ holding of immigrants at the border with Mexico has been likened to that of a concentration camp. Conservatives have decried this claim as being too extreme but, as much as I hate to say it, the liberals are right. Detention centres are concentration camps. Concentration camps are not defined by the presence of gas chambers, they’re defined by their function, namely the concentrated holding of people. Whether they are more or less horrific is, for our needs, irrelevant.13I wish to clarify that I nor Ellul are in no way ignorant of the terrors created by these regimes. If a bright side can be found in all this, it is that torture is not efficient, meaning that a world dominated fully by technique, despite being totalitarian, will not resemble the horrors perpetrated by the totalitarian societies of the 20th century (furthermore, there will likely be no Roko’s Basilisk either, as torture is inefficient). No, it will be a painless totalitarian society like that of Huxley’s Brave New World, something I remember discussing in high school, where many students felt it was a utopia and not a dystopia. Such a reading is nothing if not a product of our society already being deeply ingrained in the logic of technique.

In the same way, what is meant here by totalitarian is not the often implied historical meaning of, say, Stalinist Russia at the height of the purges, for example. Rather, totalitarian simply refers to an all-encompassing system that leaves room for nothing outside itself. Indeed, this means that technique itself is totalitarian in its very nature.

But this totalitarian tendency can be carried out in many ways—and indeed is carried out in many ways. Some states use the mirage of democracy to hide the fact that technicians increasingly make all the decisions.14For the weebs, consider the beginning of episode 11 of Evangelion, an anime set in a supremely technical world. The intro of this episode features a character talking about how their public democracy is a fraud, simply a council of representatives that rubber stamp the decisions made by the real council: 3 super-intelligent AI that “discuss” among themselves. It is lauded by this character to be “the most efficient, least wasteful form of governance,” to which another character expresses this to be a “wonder of science.” No, it is not science but technique. Ellul notes the difference in his brief mention of Greece as a society that cherished science and the pursuit of knowledge for contemplation, but not for use (Ellul, p. 27). They were fearful of technique, lest it create a monster they could not control. We tend to think of science today in the technical sense, because we live in a technical world, and indeed since the elaboration of the Scientific Method (something that also coincides with the timeline of both capitalism and technique’s rises to prominence) science has become more and more technical, as method is simply another aspect of technique. But it was not always this way. Other states don’t bother, but instead shroud technique in some ideology or historical narrative. Indeed politics itself has become subject to technique, something Ellul refers to imaginatively as political technique, which he argues was first developed by Lenin.

The point here is similar to that of Brady’s as mentioned before: despite their named political differences, every state has undergone a thorough centralisation of corporate power as well as an intense development of technique. And the combined insight of these two brings us to my main point of contention with the book, although one I am convinced can be reconciled easily with a bit of explaining.

Shall we?

Technique Today, or in other words, we’re almost home

The world we live in today is different from that of Ellul’s 1950s France. One of the ways it is different compared to what Ellul predicted is that we do not see the proliferation of the state nearly as much as we see corporate proliferation.

Does this mean that Ellul was wrong about technique and capital? Or that there has been an unprecedented shift back into innovation and growth (and the empty space to accompany it)? No and no, least of all because there is no corresponding shift towards the democratic, in fact the very opposite is going on. Just as Brady showed us for the 20th century, the 21st is continuing to concentrate power. And just as Ellul makes clear, profit and technique are still fundamentally at odds when taken to their respective limits.

This next bit is much more “me,” whereas most of this writing up to now has been more like Ellul translated by me with additional scattered references. So bear with me.

I think we have reached a point today where the difference between state power and corporate power has become as superficial as the differences Ellul saw (from the perspective of technique) between capitalist America, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. This superficiality comes from a similarity of operation: corporations are profoundly totalitarian and states are becoming increasingly so all the time, from in-our-face denials of democratic rights, to ceaseless background infringements on those rights. Not to mention police violence.

Secondly, and this is particularly true in America, corporations have come to capture many aspects of the state. Indeed it is not too far off to say that today the state is a sort of corporation,15“According to Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, ‘It’s impossible to tell where the government ends and Lockheed begins.’ It’s even harder to tell where Lockheed ends and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq begins.” – The Shock Doctrine, p319, Naomi Klein. For those of you fortunate enough not to know, Lockheed Martin is a mega corporation that produces airplanes and other weapons technology for the US military. Think Boeing, both of which were involved in the Iraq War. Hell, the first sentence of their Wikipedia page describes them as having “worldwide interests.” Its right in front of our faces, people. a conglomeration of the biggest ones that is. And given the trend towards combination and merger, the number of corporations goes down as they fuse together, while their relative share of power increases. To anyone who has read Zinn, this should really come as no surprise. America was founded, in the minds of those at the highest levels, to service “the opulent minority”—in other words, to service themselves.

This has not been a linear process of course; indeed America and other states have had their fair share of push and pull with capital (and with popular democracy, I do not wish to sweep labour movements and the like under the rug). But the trend is clear. Power is power, and technique demands it be ever more concentrated to service its own ends. The problem of profit is resolved as more and more upfront costs are covered by the state, these costs being some of the biggest barriers to profitable production (ironically, something defenders of private healthcare love to say). For example, GPS is owned by the US government, and the technologies that make it possible were developed in university laboratories. In other words, the technology that makes Uber possible was researched and is maintained by taxpayer money. But who sees the profits? And this phenomenon is not the exception, nor is it new: the state playing a major role in the economy is the historical norm. If there is anything new here, it is only the degree to which this state intervention in the name of capital is occurring, which has perhaps gotten so vast that it is more accurate to think of it as not state intervention, but capital takeover: consider the events described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, where several states throughout the last 50 years, from Chile to Iraq, were essentially gutted by corporations in the name of good economic policy.

Here we have an example of how corporations and technical development have found a way to happily coexist again. But given the all-demanding nature of technique, I do not think this happy coexistence can continue forever. As I mentioned before, profit and efficiency are simply incompatible: despite what economists want to believe, profit is increasingly enjoyed lavishly, not reinvested into production. When profit is used in order to achieve more profits, rather than pursuing development, it is done so in increasingly “crony” ways, such as buying influence in politics, or as Ellul mentioned above, in anti-competitive acts such as the buying up and locking away of competitive patents. Indeed the very hatred capitalists around the world felt towards communism in the 20th century was fueled by what communism represented: technical development16The video should start at 9:05, listen through 10:17 for the quote of interest. No, its not Chomsky. Its Chomsky quoting someone else. I consumed Chomsky and Marx side by side in my initial intellectual development, sue me. (volume warning, loud relative to other videos linked so far]), outside the framework of profit. All power seeks stasis so that it may maintain its position on top, and as said above technical progress threatens that stasis for the capitalist class. 

In this sense, technique is the essence of realism (realism understood here to be an international relations theory, the formalisation of realpolitik if you like). And I for one think the world at large has always been a realist one, to a greater or lesser degree. Ideas are great, and cooperation is better, but food and security are surely best. We know this because our world is certainly realist, and even if it wasn’t, a single force guided by realism would soon come to dominate all the others. This is the essence of power: it is, at bottom, the force of life. And what is power if not the efficient use of resources? What is power if not technique?

Conclusion, or where we go from here

I would like to conclude by saying that while the Marxist in me still has some contentions with Ellul, he is no doubt the better thinker when it comes to understanding our world as it exists today. Technique is a fundamentally more concrete (but notedly less social) concept than class when it comes to understanding how the world truly functions, and that is something I am always searching for. As with all great thinkers and their ideas, I do my best to accept the truths contained within for what they are, and add them to my models of truth for understanding the world around me. Ellul is no doubt a massive addition to the toolkit, even the Marxist one, as I think he should be for anyone concerned with today. 

After more thinking and more writing (and more thinking and more writing…) I now see between Marx and Ellul the potential for quite the overlap. Marx’s conception of history and progress features different economic systems which yield technical development up to a point, and then require their overthrow and the establishment of a new economic system to continue said development. With my limited knowledge, I am not willing to make the claim that technological development rides alongside class struggle as the spur of all history, but at the very least, the establishment of capitalism can be said to go hand in hand with the technical development we find ourselves in the midst of today, and perhaps other transitions can be tied together as well (such as the development of technique that seemingly characterises different schools of thought within the discipline of nationalism, namely primordial, perennial, and modern conceptions). In The Technological Society however, Ellul spoke mostly of technique as it has existed since the Industrial Revolution, making such a synthesis limited without further research.

What I can say, and here Ellul does agree, if communism is indeed the achievement of maximum technological development, it is no savour, as Ellul shows that it cannot be controlled in the ways Marx supposes when he speaks of communist society. This has parallels with what Matt Christman17Unfortunately I did not make note of which vlog Christman said what is referenced above, so I have simply linked one of my early favorites. If you would like to scour for it, I know it comes after that one, and before, “Demiurge Overkill,” lets say. Its quite the one man show. has to say about “fully automated luxury (gay) space communism,” as it is somewhat jokingly put online, but he goes even further. For Christman, the supposed democratic control of the means of production is not an end goal for humanity, as it still yields only material advancement, whereas humans require fulfillment in the realm of the spiritual as well. Either way, Ellul’s diagnosis does not bode well for us subjects of technicians.

Final Notes from the Author

I would like this sectioned paper to serve as an introduction to the ideas contained within The Technological Society as well as an update for the current day. The only thing else I can claim to have produced myself beyond interpretations of the book are connections to other works and the thought experiments I use to explain it, namely the example of sewing and that of the democratic city in search of water. I found these useful myself in trying to explain (and understand: I paused while reading and came up with the water one in order to see for myself if democracy was still possible) Ellul’s reasoning, and while these examples took a good bit of writing, they hopefully go a long way to accurately condense the book, which a reviewer on the back referred to as being “maddeningly thorough.” Indeed. But there is no royal road to technique.  

This essay originally appeared on Nihilist Communism’s WordPress, and has been lightly edited before republication on Ortus.

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