by John Waters
This article first appeared on https://johnwaters.substack.com/
French philosopher Jacques Ellul, writing 70 years ago, foresaw a world where human rights would be abolished and the population absorbed into a technical post-human utopia.
Where Jacques Ellul helps us with where we find ourselves now relates to two interlocking areas — propaganda and what we call technology, or he calls ‘the technical fact’ — demonstrating how these phenomena, unbeknownst to us, have for some considerable time been preparing the way for the most total form of totalitarianism the world has ever seen. He helps in pointing out things we do not see — for they are simply ‘there’, apparently part of reality — and explaining how, in fact, they have been elements of an entirely different reality, slowly constructing itself in our midst. He helps in showing how these apparently diverse elements come together into a single entity, which might be called the defining quality — or perhaps ‘quantity’ — of our modern societies. He calls it ‘the civilisation of technique’, or, as per the title of perhaps his most famous book, the technological society. This reality amounts to much more than technology, extending beyond the reach of mere machines. It is so ubiquitous and all-embracing that it appears to be no more than the organic nature of our reality. But it is not so. There were and are other possibilities — there have to be, for this model of reality has made us sitting ducks for control and subjugation by those who seek to set themselves above the human family, which, using, yes, techniques of propaganda, they first set out to convert into a mob primed to attack those who questioned their ‘right’ to do this.
The foremost problem may be that our cultures treat technologies as tools-with-plugs, mere addendums to the strength or scope or reach of the user. This is a dangerous fallacy, being possibly close to the opposite of the truth. But what, in this context, might be truth’s ‘opposite’? That, perhaps, since tools and men have always operated in symbiotic relationship, there is a point where technology ceases to be an adjunct of the human user, and the relationship enters a new dispensation, changing, inverting and reversing everything. A largely unnoticed example is the modern motor vehicle, which for a century or so continued to be something that, regardless of the centrality to its operation of the internal combustion engine, remained the servant of man. Latterly, however, in the age of the computer, a series of what at first sight appear to be ‘improvements’ have utterly changed that relationship. The primary issue, which has excited some comment, is the way the computer has turned the engine, for the typical user, into a sealed, opaque unit. Whereas in the past, the average mechanically savvy (perhaps we may add ‘male’) driver carried in his head a general sense of the functioning and inter-relationships of block, pistons, plugs, distributor, carburettor, gearbox, driveshaft, universal joint, he is now, in as far as being the ruler of his vehicle, in more or less the same situation as a retired matron driving — or being driven by — a 2021 Toyota Yaris hybrid at 35 kph in third gear. But there is worse: now, too, his progress along the highway is punctuated by a series of beeps, rings and curt instructions — he has forgotten to fasten his seatbelt, he has reached the speed limit, his tyre pressure needs seeing to — which cumulatively invert the prior master/servant relationship between the involved, competent driver and his vehicle. In somewhat disguised fashion, the vehicle has assumed control. The driver has become, in existential terms, little more than a passenger, with some limited licence to direct the car where he wishes it to go. And, in a few more years, there will be no drivers, merely human bodies transported hither and thither by self-driving cars.
All this has been happening in the guise of comfort, safety and, above all, convenience. But in its murky depths these processes have been subtly coaching the human passenger to regard himself in a new way: not as a human person seeking to subdue the earth and reign over it, but as an increasingly immobilised hunk of meat being ferried about the place to diminishing purpose.
Man becomes a tool — though not an especially useful one — in the hands of whom? In the hands of the ‘few’, the elite who, having convinced man that God was holding him back, have now stepped in to sit on the divine throne. Physically indistinguishable from the rest of mankind, the ‘few’ plan to maintain their dominion by the usurpation of earthbound power, having accumulated most of the earth’s resources so as to leave the majority of men disempowered and to bribe enough of them to defend themselves from rebellion.
But man, as he stands, even at his best, is of limited use to the ‘few’. When it comes to doing what is to be done, technology is more malleable, cheaper, more efficient, adaptable. And technology shows no inclination to rebel. Leaving aside, then, the messy business of the useless eaters, there is an urgent need to absorb the bulk of the human population into the mechanistic realm, to make them, in effect — and in no sense metaphorically — parts of the machine. This, in shorthand version, is the meaning of everything we have been experiencing for the past 20 months. It is also the theme of a book by Jacques Ellul, writing nearly 70 years ago — among the first, and certainly the most articulate, to spell out the hidden realities that long ago set us in train for this destination.
Ellul was a French philosopher, sociologist and Christian theologian, born in 1912, who wrote more than 60 book (roughly half of which have been translated into English) about religious questions, ethics, theology and the law, propaganda, freedom, the dangers of Marxism, and the potential for technological tyranny to overwhelm the freedom of humanity. His keynote work in this latter context is The Technological Society, published in French in 1954, and in English a decade later. The full book is available as a free download on archive.org
Although his title contains the word ‘technological’, Ellul was not talking merely about machines and the industrial society that emerged from them. The book’s title in French is La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, which translates, more or less, as ‘The technique, or the challenge of the century’. The English translation repeatedly employs the word ‘technique’ to convey something broader than technology or machines: the idea of a society founded on mechanistic thinking, technical processes, bureaucratic process, in which the human quotient has been educated as technicians and long since to ‘think’ and function mechanistically.
It is a mistake, Ellul writes, to confuse the ‘technical problem’ he alludes to with the machine itself. The machine is at the centre of the problem and yet a small part of it. Technique, he insists, has become almost completely independent of the machine, which has lagged far behind its offspring. ‘It is the machine which is now entirely dependent upon technique, and the machine represents only a small part of technique,’ he writes. It might seem that the closest word-concept available in English to what Ellul had in mind is offered by ‘technocratic’/’technocracy’, but these terms, leaning more towards the operatives, personnel of technique, does not capture what he intends. Perhaps the word he was rummaging for had not yet — has not yet — been invented? Perhaps something like ‘technolotarian’ or ‘technotarian’ might closer resemble his thoughts.
He uses ‘technique’ frequently as a poecilonym for ‘science’, and speaks of scientific work as synonymous with technique. He see the two concepts as closely associated, hinting that he may be side-swiping also what nowadays is called ‘scientism’ — the tendency to elevate science to an all-encompassing system for understanding reality. ‘The term technique, as I use it,’ Ellul writes, ‘does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past.’
The object of the ‘technological society’, is to utilise technique to maximum efficiency at the lowest possible cost, seeking the One Best Way in everything. ‘Technique’ is the parent of the technological society, the begetter of machines and technologies and the kinds of thinking that grow like fungi therefrom. It leaves no space for non-economistic concerns, like culture-for-its-own-sake, personal loyalty, patriotism, or romantic concepts of the past. In the ‘technical society’, production and consumption are the two ends of life’s meaning. ‘The only thing that matters technically,’ Ellul writes, ‘is yield, production. This is the law of technique; this yield can only be obtained by the total mobilization of human beings, body and soul, and this implies the exploitation of all human psychic forces.’
The pursuit of the One Best Way is the pursuit of optimal efficiency, cost-effectiveness and repeatability. To this end, everything, including man, must be measured and calculated mathematically, so as to adhere to the demands of rationality. This he calls ‘technical automatism’, the chief characteristic of which is that it offers no element of personal choice to either the ‘creator’ or the consumer. ‘Inside the technical circle, the choice among methods, mechanism, organizations, and formulas is carried cut automatically.’ The One Best Way asserts itself, allowing of no alternatives, and man, though stripped of his freedom, finds himself satisfied.
It is useless to rail against capitalism, Ellul says, for capitalism did not create our world: ‘the machine did.’ In the technical age, technology is the ‘new God’. Technique saturates the modern state with its logic and demands: the calls of regulation, bureaucratisation, quantification, rationalisation, mechanisation, standardisation, materialism, scientism, procedures — all of which, separately and together, define and decide everything. In the technical society, there is no space for thoughts of nationhood or sovereignty. Results — enterprise, growth, performance, profit, efficiency, services — these are what matter.
In a society dominated by the logic of technique, all other considerations and logics become secondary, and yet the language of prior concepts of collective meaning and value continue to circulate as though they remain central. This is because the technical society cultivates a kind of cultural time-warp to conceal its true nature.
The technical society is not self-contained but part of a globalising power structure, which converges on the principles of technique. Technique amounts of itself to a form of dictatorship — ruling by logic and the coercion imposed by necessity. The technical society has long demanded an implicit submission. To succeed within it requires total acquiescence. Art and literature are ‘escape valves’ to release the pent-up energy that develops under the constant attrition of the technical. (Drugs, too, function as a cushion to absorb surfeit discontent.) These cultural forms are essential release-valves, implying — and it was Ellul’s view — that the technical society is Huxlean rather than Orwellian: The citizen can have everything except his freedom, but mostly he does not miss this, having no clue what the word means.
The state is now utterly in the grip of the phenomenon of technique. The expansion of the state’s power and influence into health, education and social welfare, has made technique more central to its operation, and also pushed many private operators out of these sectors. This, together with the growing expense associated with technique, has provided the state with a near-monopoly of such instruments of technical power. Indeed, the state and the technical society have become, Ellul maintains, essentially synonymous. ‘From the political, social, and human points of view, this conjunction of state and technique is by far the most important phenomenon of history,’ he declares. ‘It is astonishing to note that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has emphasized this fact. It is likewise astonishing that we still apply ourselves to the study of political theories or parties which no longer possess anything but episodic importance, yet we bypass the technical fact which explains the totality of modern political events.’
This ignorance, he suggests, springs from an obdurate traditionalism, ‘which causes us always to live in the past and ‘explain’ the present without understanding it’. Alternatively, he suggests, humankind may have unconsciously repressed knowledge of the danger represented by technique. This convergence of technical and state power, he argues, has enabled the state to reach into the private lives of individuals and families, under the guise of assisting them to manage their own affairs. This has had numerous collateral effects, including the reorienting of ideology to become, in effect, a programme for lobbying state power in the interests of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ — rendering political parties essentially indistinguishable, since they are all answerable to the same modes of technique.
Technique lends itself to an aristocratic society, implying aristocratic government. Democracy is for show, present in theory, but nullified by the operation of propaganda and bogus political plurality. The aristocratic elite could not countenance the average citizen having a say in his own affairs. The most skilful — most technical — propaganda attracts the most votes, and everything is mathemathicised to the extent that nothing is left to chance. These processes, he stresses, are politically invisible and only detectable at the psychological level.
His analysis, he insists, is not necessarily pessimistic. He is not a Luddite. He simply wishes to warn of general trends affecting the freedom of the social, political, and economic dimensions. ‘In the modern world, the most dangerous form of determinism is the technological phenomenon. It is not a question of getting rid of it, but by an act of freedom, of transcending it.’
It may sometimes be possible for the individual to retain a degree of personal freedom around these collectivising mechanisms. Man, he concedes, has always had his existence determined by external factors — in the primitive past by taboos, prohibitions, rites; in classical antiquity by other social diktats. ‘Heretofore, mankind did not bind up its fate with technical progress. Man regarded technical progress more as a relative instrument than as a god. He did not hope for very much from it.’
We have moved from one set of determinants to another, and then another. But the determinants he observes in the technical society, appear to him to be stronger and more oppressive than anything that existed before. ‘The pressure of these mechanisms is today very great; they operate in increasingly wide areas and penetrate more and more deeply into human existence.’
The process of technical incursion on the human is fragmentary, multi-faceted and ultimately dissociative, allowing plausible deniability to those who raise their eyebrows in response to accusations of manipulation or de-humanisation.
‘A single technique and its guarded application to a limited sphere is the starting point of dissociation. No technician anywhere would say that he is submitting men, collectively or individually, to technique. The biogeneticist who experiments on the human embryo, or the film director who tries to affect his audience to the greatest possible degree, makes no claim that he is working on man. The individual is broken into a number of independent fragments, and no two techniques have the same dimensions or depth. Nor does any combination of techniques . . . correspond to any part of the human being. The result is that every technique can assert its innocence. Where, then, or by whom, is the human individual being attacked? Nowhere and by no one. Such is the reply of technique and technician. . . . According to them, the charge itself demonstrates an absence of comprehension and the presence of erroneous, not to say malicious, prejudices.’
Man’s fate, he says, remains within his own gift. We are not helpless to preserve our own freedoms. ‘[I]f man — if each one of us — abdicates his responsibilities with regard to values; if each of us limits himself to leading a trivial existence in a technological civilization, with greater adaptation and increasing success as his sole objectives; if we do not even consider the possibility of making a stand against these determinants, then everything will happen as I have described it, and the determinants will be transformed into certain chains of events and sequences.’
‘In my conception, freedom is not an immutable fact graven in nature and on the heart of man. It is not inherent in man or in society, and it is meaningless to write it into law. The mathematical, physical, biological, sociological, and psychological sciences reveal nothing but necessities and determinisms on all sides. As a matter of fact, reality is itself a combination of determinisms, and freedom consists in overcoming and transcending these determinisns. Freedom is completely without meaning unless it is related to necessity, unless it represents victory over necessity. To say that freedom is graven in the nature of man, is to say that man is free because he obeys his nature, or, to put it another way, because he is conditioned by his nature. This is nonsense. We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must look at it dialectically, and say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.’ If he surrenders to technique, or imagines himself immune from it, man is equally lost. ‘However, by grasping the real nature of the technological phenomenon, and the extent to which it is robbing him of freedom, he confronts the blind mechanisms as a conscious being.’
The effect of technique is neither some gradual worsening or improvement, but a radical redefinition of man in his environment. A significant part of the danger lies in the way technique is able to relieve man of the weight of responsibility for himself. ‘Man is not adapted to a world of steel; technique adapts him to it. It changes the arrangement of this blind world so that man can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges, without the anguish of being delivered up to the inhuman.’
The city is home to technique. We think of the city as being about human proximity, energy, sex, but before those it was about efficiency, for which men were prepared to pay dearly in the coin of being. ‘Men now live in conditions that are less than human. Consider the concentration of our great cities, the slums, the lack of space, of air, of time, the gloomy streets and the sallow lights that confuse night and day. Think of our dehumanized factories, our unsatisfied senses, our working women, our estrangement from nature. Life in such an environment has no meaning. Consider our public transportation, in which man is less important than a parcel; our hospitals, in which he is only a number. Yet we call this progress.’
The changes are both existential and aspirational. Man has acquired new habits, rooted in his need for comfort, which in turn has altered his relationship with the facts of his existence. The man of the Middle Ages, he outlines, did not care if his rooms were badly heated or his chairs hard. Death was ever-present and taken for granted, and this consciousness defined man’s sense of his own needs and limits. Technique was present but undetectably. There was no sense of the future as a kind of destination, even — as it is now — a place, better and more virtuous than the present. Improvements were made for the sake of the moment, not the future. Society was not oriented toward the creation of new instruments in response to new needs. The emphasis was on the application of old means.
‘The deficiency of the tool was to be compensated for by the skill of the worker,’ Ellul explains. ‘Professional know-how, the expert eye were what counted: man’s talents could make his crude tools yield the maximum efficiency. This was a kind of technique, but it had none of the characteristics of instrumental technique. Everything varied from man to man according to his gifts, whereas technique in the modern sense seeks to eliminate such variability.’
‘Instrumental’ is a key word in understanding both Ellul and the sometime subtle questions he seeks to elucidate. It means, in this context, something like ‘a means to an end’. The skills were intrinsic to men; the tools were secondary. The end result was not the sole consideration: At play also were craftsmanship, skill, personality, human dignity, pride, honour. The ‘technique’ of the carpenter or the stonemason was intrinsic to his whole being, and created among the mass of men a spirit of fellow-feeling that nowadays survives only between, for example, poets or musicians. There was something that craftsmen held in common, something precious, which had to do with much more than the objects they brought into being.
A strong sense of this is conveyed in L’Argent, written in 1913 by Charles Péguy, evoking craft traditions steeped in honour and a desire for perfection. The leg of a chair had to be well made, not to ensure the craftsman get paid; not for the owner, nor the experts, but ‘for itself, in itself, in its own way,’ and this applied as much to the parts that were not visible as those likely to be in full view. This tradition dated from the beginnings of the race. More recently, this idea of man as a being rendered sovereign in his work was beautifully explored by Matthew Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soul Craft. To practice a craft, he postulated, is to enter into a relationship with a world that exists independently of oneself. A carpenter is bound by the evidence of his spirit level, an electrician by the irrefutable witness of the circuitry he has assembled. Do the lights work or not? The individuality of the tradesman is expressed in his engagement with a world shared with other similarly engaged beings, a world of which understandings are stored and exchanged. This, says Crawford, is the truest meaning of the word ‘republican’. The defining spirit is a sociable individuality based on mutual passions. This is not the same as ‘autonomy’, a mechanistic, technical concept, which denies that we are born into a world that pre-existed us. ‘It posits,’ insists Crawford, ‘an essential aloneness: an autonomous being is free in the sense that a being severed from all others is free. To regard oneself in this way is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude. For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is not of our making.’
The modern citizen exists in a state of ‘freedom’ in which, like a calf in a gated field, he thinks he has the run of the whole world. In reality he is penned in on all sides in his technical bubble, exploited for what labour he can contribute and what extravagances he can consume, dumbed down by ‘education’ and mass media and thrown scraps of diversion and provocation to distract him from the true nature of his situation. He has surrendered his sovereignty in return for a relatively comfortable existence, but without real meaning or the basis of a truly hopeful gaze on the future. The ideology of the technological society tells him that he was never more free, but he cannot escape the sense of limits the technology imposes. He feels autonomous, but, as Crawford illuminates, it is the autonomy of the automaton. Under these conditions, ‘freedom’ has already become a double-bind, for the freedom afforded by technology starves the user of the satisfaction of true freedom which flows from the capacity to make a real impression upon reality.
The human being in a technical society is situated not in relation to other human beings but to technique, which inevitably draws him away from himself into the crowd. This also destroys ‘natural’ collectivities — Crawford’s ‘republics’ — which operated by principles and values long pre-dating the age of technique. Technique, being sociological of its essence, must be understood sociologically.‘Modern man,’ Ellul writes, ‘divines that there is only one reasonable way out: to submit and take what profit he can from what technique otherwise so richly bestows upon him. If he is of a mind to oppose it, he finds himself really alone.’
Left to himself, the man has no place, belongs nowhere, except perhaps his workplace, where he is in the constant grip of technique. Beyond that he is lost, a ‘phantom’, in Ellul’s description. His personal destiny is fulfilled only by death, but between his adolescent adventuring and the moment of his checking-out, there is nothing he can claim as a decisive moment of action or change. ‘Changes are the exclusive prerogative of organized technical society, which one day may have decked him out in khaki to defend it, and on another in stripes because he had sabotaged or betrayed it. There was no difference from one day to the next.’
Matthew Crawford talks about ‘illiberal’ work, by which he means trumped-up office jobs or treadmill clock-watching, jobs that make you feel more like a machine than the technologies you’re supposed to be operating. This is the world Ellul anticipated, six decades before him. The worker does a job he hates, which bores him. He is moderately well paid, but doesn’t feel he deserves even this level of remuneration. He carries out a single meaningless and dissociated function in a process he does not comprehend. Nothing of it belongs to his own spirit or imagination. His life, as experienced through his work, has no purpose other than to secure the wherewithal for his continuance, which has no meaning other than what is given to him by his necessity for material subsistence. Mostly, paid work exists in a crypto-totalitarian climate of dissociated authority, standardization of processes and mandatory guidelines. In a culture in which human skills and judgments have been siphoned out of all human context — patented, codified, tabulated and reduced to algorithms — there is a deep suspicion of human discretion
This is the hard centre of modern human alienation and the crux of what is at stake in the unconscious hubris we nowadays indulge in as a consequence of toting, as unmitigated evidence of ‘progression’, technologies we imagine would have bamboozled our ancestors. Really, the joke is on ourselves. The drift of the technology threatens to steal everything of us worth stealing: what remaining knowledge we may have of how to make or fix things, and the keys to all the doors this making and fixing once opened up into exhilaration — freedoms!, now lost and replaced by something called leisure, a different entity altogether.
The loss of these understandings has had profound consequences. Men have become reduced to, at best, supervisors of machines, many of them other humans reduced to the lowest level of technique. It is out of this disaster, Ellul postulates, that the concept of ‘human rights’ became necessary. The reduction of man rendered vital what might be called a ‘redistribution of dignity’ (my phrase, not Ellul’s), of honour, of pride, all accompanied by their individual moral schemas. And, then, Ellul prophetically cautions: ‘When these moral flourishes overly encumber technical progress, they are discarded — more or less speedily, with more or less ceremony, but with determination nonetheless. This is the state we are in today.’ Their transitional functions fulfilled, the much-trumpeted charters, declarations and conventions of rights are quietly abolished. ‘Rights mean nothing to a mankind surrounded by techniques,’ writes Ellul. ‘It is our responsibility to study man’s situation vis-à-vis techniques and not vis-à-vis some no longer existent force. . . . Technique has rendered traditional democratic doctrines obsolete.’
Remember that these sentences were published in 1954, and therefore written perhaps a year or two earlier — seven decades ago. Our situation has worsened dramatically in the interim, and catastrophically over the past 20 months, but the foundational irritant was already present a lifetime ago, indeed had already taken several initial leaps towards the total domination that seems its automatic impulsion.
In the remote past, Ellul writes, it had been possible for the individual to step outside the sway of technique (which had always existed in one form or another) and control his own destiny. The individual could break away and lead, for example, a mystical or contemplative life. Tools were remote from man, and were only as advanced as necessary to assist or expedite his skills. Now, instead of the focus being on the perfection of the chair leg, it is the machines — the ‘tools’ — that stand to be perfected, upgraded. Technique, the pursuit of ‘means without limit’, has become unlimited, and evolves so rapidly that man, even the technician himself, is left behind. This technique-without-limit, Ellul says, is characterised by two features: the imposition of rationality on the impulsive and irrational, and a quality of artificiality. The first involves a reduction of process to mechanical systems, their logical dimension in particular — involving the division of labour, the pursuit of targets, and the use of systemic procedures that exclude creativity and spontaneity. The second, ‘artificiality’, removes the creation of things to the realm of the unnatural, and constructs a synthetic world, which suppresses the natural one. ‘The two worlds,’ writes Ellul, ‘obey different imperatives, different directives, and different laws which have nothing in common. Just as hydroelectric installations take waterfalls and lead them into conduits, so the technical milieu absorbs the natural. We are rapidly approaching the time when there will be no longer any natural environment at all. When we succeed in producing artificial aurorae boreales, night will disappear and perpetual day will reign over the planet.’
Technical activity, he writes, ‘automatically eliminates every nontechnical activity or transforms it into technical activity.’ This does not mean that there is any conscious effort or directive will. The process of technique is as though possessed of a mind of its own. It is not, he insists, Machiavellian. Everything happens as though spontaneously, in accordance with the ‘laws of development of technique’. Both the puppet-master and his puppet are equally in thrall to the sway of technique, one exploiting the power it affords, the other already dulled and regimented by its effects. If this seems to display a naïvete concerning the influence of elites — now an axiomatic aspect of geo-events — it should be remembered that Ellul, in a different context, unpacked more completely than anyone else had done — or has done even to this day — the mechanism of propaganda and its capacity to access via the passions and instincts the malleable, crowd-directed aspect of man.
Ellul was an advocate of democracy, but believed that propaganda rendered its true exercise ‘almost impossible’. Propaganda was, he believed, the Siamese twin of the technological society, which makes propaganda easy and thrives upon the effects. But, as he observes in The Technological Society, many of us regard propaganda as simply an amplifier of communication in, say, the defence of an idea or system. ‘We hear constantly that it cannot therefore be of any harm to the democracies. After all, there is a plurality of political parties employing propaganda to maintain opposing or even contradictory ideas; the citizen has a free choice among them. Such a misapprehension comes from a frighteningly elementary conception of propaganda.’ Propaganda, Ellul insists, is not mere communication but ‘the manipulation of the mob’s unconscious.’ It operates not only, as is widely understood, at the levels of factual elision and lies, but is capable of accessing also the reservoirs of religiosity, mythology and superstition. In The Technological Society, he cites a contemporary, French philosopher and sociologist, Jules Monnerot: ‘When an entire category of events, beings, and ideas is outside criticism, it constitutes a sacred realm, in contrast to the realm of the profane.’ This, says Ellul, happens when something becomes the occasion of constant propaganda: ‘As a result of the profound influence of the mechanisms of propaganda, a new zone of the forbidden is created in the heart of man, but it is artificially induced, in contrast to the taboos of primitive societies.’ These processes render that matter, whatever it may be, subject to a kind of veneration that places it beyond question or criticism, rendering its deniers or opponents as heretics or blasphemers, and thus liable to sanction or punishment.
In another of his books, Propagandes, published in 1964, Ellul described propaganda as ‘a direct attack against man’, because it does not tolerate discussion and abhors contradiction. ‘It must produce quasi-unanimity, and the opposing faction must become negligible, or in any case cease to be vocal.’ This is why those who persist in thinking for themselves, or even in expressing unapproved views, invite such opprobrium in the technical society. It’s not just that they threaten the reach or influence of the propagandists, for in truth, due to their inability to achieve total saturation through media, dissenters rarely do so. It is that, by their very presence, they put at risk the whole edifice. Their continuing dissent endangers the artifice that is essential for effective propaganda: the sense of naturalism, obviousness, factuality, that must accompany it. For this to work effectively propaganda must be ubiquitous and universal, to appear to describe everything, from all sides, though in reality from one side only.
The problem he writes, lies in the psychological situation of the individual assailed by a number of equally skillful propagandas acting upon his nervous system, ‘probing and disturbing his unconscious, working over his intelligence, and exacerbating his reactions, the individual can no longer live except in a climate of tension and overexcitement. He can no longer be a smiling and skeptical spectator. He is indeed “engaged” but involuntarily so, since he has ceased to dominate his own thoughts and actions. Techniques have taught the organizers how to force him into the game. He has been stripped of his power of judgment.’
To submit to propaganda means to become alienated from oneself. ‘Propaganda strips the individual, robs him of part of himself, and makes him live an alien and artificial life, to such an extent that he becomes another person and obeys impulses foreign to him.’ This is achieved by suffusing the individual in the emotions and responses of the crowd, dissipating his individuality, freeing his ego of all confusion, unresolved contradiction and personal reservations. It pushes the individual into the mass ‘until he disappears entirely’. What ‘disappears’, in fact, is the individual’s capacity for personal reflection, independent thinking, critical judgment, these being replaced with ready-made thoughts, stereotypes, clichés, catchwords. ‘Through propaganda,’ write Ellul in The Technological Society, ‘we can train a man not to kill or not to drink alcohol; or we can train him to kill or to smoke opium.’
Propaganda operates by creating a kind of abstract universe, involving a complete reconstruction of reality in the minds of those affected. This alternative world is built of words, which mutate into images that become realer than reality in something resembling hallucination. In this constructed ‘sham universe’, lies become truth and the true seems far-fetched. ‘Man will be led to act from real motives that are scientifically directed and increasingly irresistible; he will be brought to sacrifice himself in a real world, but for the sake of the verbal universe which has been fashioned for him. We must try to grasp the profundity of this upheaval. The human being has enormous means at his disposal, and he acts upon and in the real world. But he acts in a dream: he seeks other ends (those the incantational magic of propaganda proposes for him) than those he will really attain.’ The ends he is moving towards are known only to the manipulators of the mass subconscious. What is being manipulated is a raft of predispositions, yielding a certain flexibility of response, a kind of ever-readiness and versatility of disposition that allows the propagandist, where necessary, to intervene to redirect the attention of the propagandised to a new purpose or task. ‘[T]he use of certain propaganda techniques is not meant to entail immediate and definitive adhesion to a given formula, but rather to bring about a kind of long-range vacuity of the individual. The individual, his soul massaged, emptied of his natural tendencies, and thoroughly assimilated to the group, is ready for anything. Propaganda’s chief requirement is not so much to be rational, well grounded, and powerful as it is to produce individuals especially open to suggestion who can be easily set into motion.’
Propaganda leads to the atrophying of the capacities to judge, discern or think critically, and these faculties will not simply reappear when propaganda is discontinued or suppressed. Years of spiritual and intellectual reconstruction will be required to restore them. The victim of propaganda, deprived of one channel of opinion, will simply seek out another, like a junkie seeking a different kind of fix. This, says, Ellul, will ‘spare him the agony of finding himself vis-à-vis some event without a ready-made opinion and obliged to judge it for himself.’ Once successfully propagandised, Ellul elaborated in Propagandes, the individual ceases to be a passive recipient of the propaganda and becomes an evangelist. He takes vigorous stances, starts to oppose others. ‘He asserts himself,’ observes Ellul, ‘at the very moment that he denies his own self without realising it.’
In The Technological Society, Ellul describes in precise terms the process by which a mob is baited to attack a designated enemy — for example, the bourgeoisie or the Jews or, let’s say, the unvaccinated in a ‘pandemic’ which people have been persuaded through propaganda represents an enormous threat to life and health. This insinuation of a scapegoat through propaganda operates off what he calls the ‘will to self-justification’, latent in every individual, to which the propagandist can propose a ready enemy.’ Hate and resentment are tapped and harnessed. ‘To exploit resentments, it is sufficient merely to send the individual on his way, equipped with a very simple set of “directions for use”. . . Suppose, for example, that the adversary has been designated as the author of all the individual’s misfortunes and sufferings. (The bourgeoisie plays this role for the Communists, as the Jews played it for the Nazis.) After such suggestions have been launched, there is a surge of human resentment among the people. Like a flock of sheep, they stampede much further than they had actually been commanded to go, in obedience to another instinct which comes into play and which causes them to hurl themselves on the object of their resentment like a dog on a cat. Incidentally, this explains why there is no “criminal” in these cases. Pogroms are seldom ordered by the authorities. One need only manipulate popular resentments to bring them about.
‘In exploiting the device of the scapegoat, propaganda leads people to transfer evil to the adversary. The adversary here becomes the generalized incarnation of evil, whereas in the exploitation of resentment the adversary appears as the cause of misfortune. This incarnation indicates that there is no rational basis for hate; it results solely from subconscious mechanisms. This explains a surprising statement made by Hitler in Mein Kampf: “It is necessary to suggest to the people that the most varied enemies all belong to the same category; and to lump all adversaries together so that it will appear to the mass of our own partisans that the struggle is being waged against a single enemy. This fortifies their faith in their rights and increases their exasperation against those who would assail them.”’
Technique begets totalitarianism as a matter of course. ‘Finally, technique causes the state to become totalitarian, to absorb the citizens’ life completely. We have noted that this occurs as a result of the accumulation of techniques in the hands of the state. Techniques are mutually engendered and hence interconnected, forming a system that tightly encloses all our activities. When the state takes hold of a single thread of this network of techniques, little by little it draws to itself all the matter and the method, whether or not it consciously wills to do so. ‘Even when the state is resolutely liberal and democratic,’ he insisted, ‘it cannot do otherwise than become totalitarian.’
As though anticipating the huffing and puffing of politicians feigning outrage at the escalating 2021 use of such words against them, Ellul moved to explain: ‘The words the totalitarian state inevitably evoke clichés and passionate opinions. But these no longer represent anything but historical reminiscences. The totalitarian state we are discussing here is not the brutal, immoderate thing which tortured, deformed, and broke everything in its path, the battleground of armed bullies and factions, a place of dungeons and the reign of the arbitrary. These things did certainly exist; but they represented transient traits, not real characteristics of the totalitarian state. It might even be said that they were the human aspects of the state in its inhumanity. Torture and excess are the acts of persons who use them as a means of releasing a suppressed need for power. This does not interest us here. It does not represent the true face of the completely technical, totalitarian state. In such a state nothing useless exists; there is no torture; torture is a wasteful expenditure of psychic energy which destroys salvageable resources without producing useful results.’
The hallmark of totalitarianism remains, however, the ‘camp’ — sometimes the ‘concentration’ camp, but not necessarily in its caricature form. ‘We must not be misled by differences in name. Work camps, re-education camps, refugee camps — all represent the same fact.’ [To Ellul’s list we might now add another: the quarantine ‘hotel’.] We are speaking here of the concentration camp in its pure form, which has nothing to do with crematoria or hanging up the inmates by the thumbs. Such tortures are imputable to men, not to technique. The camp as an institution is making its appearance everywhere, under the most varied political regimes, as a result of the conjunction of social problems and police technique.’
The changing nature of society in the era of technique — the population explosion, mass migration, rising crime and terror attacks, the exigencies of supervision and surveillance — all these render essential the classification of individuals as categories of individuals, which in turn requires an uptick in menace and apprehension. Hence the centrality of the ‘camp’, and related phenomena such as ‘preventive arrest, concentration of masses of innocent persons not for judging but for sorting, and so forth.’ In the technical society, men require to be processed, treated, refined, pasteurised. What makes them different makes them dangerous, and should correctly be eliminated where possible.
Like many thinkers who have lived through totalitarianism including Solzhenitsyn and Havel, Ellul insists on the moral proximity of totalitarianism to democracy. ‘Sociologically, there is admittedly a world of difference between dictatorship and democracy. But in both the moral problem is suppressed; the individual is simply an animal broken in to obey certain conditioned reflexes. Indeed, there may be a difference between dictatorship and democracy on the plane of public health or statistics; but on the moral plane there is a fundamental identity when democracy achieves its ends through propaganda.’
The end result of the processes imposed in the technical society, he says, will be the creation of a new man: L’homme-machine — ‘Man, a machine’. Man, even in Ellul’s time, was being subjected to a prolonged time-and-motion study directed at observing, measuring, quantifying, evaluating his patterns of behaviour and response. Everything was already being systemised, schematised and tabulated. A theoretical control subject was being constructed to some future end — the ideal condition of man to enter his new ‘incarnation’.
‘In the coupling of man and machine, a genuinely new entity comes into being. Most writers still insist on the modem tendency, which they profess to discern, to adapt the machine to the man. Such adaptation doubtless exists and represents a great improvement; but it entails its counterpart, the complete adaptation of the man to the machine. This last does not lie in a remote future. Man’s nature has already been modified; and it is to an already adapted individual that technique adapts mechanical apparatus. Such adaptation is becoming progressively easier, and even takes place spontaneously when the human techniques co-operate. The purpose of our human techniques is ostensibly to reintegrate and restore the lost unity of the human being. But the unity produced is the abstract unity of the ideal Man; in reality, the concrete application of techniques dissociates man into fragments.’
This pursuit of the ‘ideal man’, he says, is a form of the ‘escapism’ which led inexorably to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the locus of the destruction of ‘some millions of unimportant specimens’. He urged us to ‘avoid the same mistake with respect to this all-virtuous ideal in the universal concentration camp we live in.’
A completely technologised world, he wrote, will include whole categories of men incapable of adaptation, who will have no place at all. The remainder will be so rigorously adapted as to leave no scope for individuality. ‘The complete joining of man and machine will have the advantage, however, of making the adaptation painless. And it will assure the technical efficiency of the individuals who survive it.’ In preparation for this homogeneity of the species, mankind was being ushered with propaganda and advertising towards a mass society. The concentration of advertising messaging on the ideal image of man enables the process of preparation to happen more or less of its own accord.
Ellul was not hopeful concerning the capacity of some spiritual resilience of mankind to send this process into retreat. Literary, artistic and musical forms were often proposed, he noted, as evidence that such a spirit of resistance was available. While he did not believe that ‘sources of vital energy’, such as sexuality, spirituality, and capacity for feeling, had been impaired, neither did he think they could be relied upon in this context, having fallen from their former plinths of tribute to the mythologies of human nature and heroism and turned into mere amusements.
‘All instincts seem more unbridled today than ever before — sex; passion for nature, the mountains, and the sea; passion for social and political action. There cannot have been many historical periods in which these forces were so evident or so authoritative. Again, I have no wish to deny whatever validity they possess. It is good for city dwellers to go to the country. It is good that a marked eroticism is wrecking the sclerotic traditional morality. It is well that poetry, thanks to such movements as surrealism, has become really expressive once more. But these phenomena, which express the deepest instinctive human passions, have also become totally innocuous. They question nothing, menace nobody.’
Technique already had the measure of such responses, he argued, enabling it to surround and localise them. ‘Moreover, technique attacks man, impairs the sources of his vitality, and takes away his mystery.’
Jazz had been, he acknowledged, one of the most authentic of modern human protests. Deriving from the experiences of West African slaves arrived in the port city of New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, the music leveraged the experiences of these lately liberated humans and seemed to offer both a healing and a kind of revolution. Ellul saw it differently. ‘In their extremity the Negroes discovered song, which likewise answered the needs of faith. Music expressed for them at once the despair of the present and the hope for salvation in Christ. Its culmination in delirium brought deliverance, but only as opium and alcohol did for others. . . . In jazz they created a true art form. But with it they also shut every door to freedom. Jazz imprisoned the Negroes more and more in their slavery; from then on, they drew a morose relish from it. It is highly significant that this slave music has become the music of the modem world.’ Jazz was in time supplanted by rock ‘n’ roll, of which the same might be said in spades. Literature and ideas, he argued, had also been castrated. Even the very best ideas had lost their spiritual efficacy by virtue of the complete separation of thought and action effected by technique. ‘The very assimilation of ideas into the technical framework which renders them materially effective makes them spiritually worthless. This does not mean that ideas have no worthwhile effect on the public at all. They have a great effect, but not the effect their creators intended.’
Ellul did not specifically envisage the advent of the transhumanist society, though its foreshadow is to be detected all over his writing about technique. The idea — now a commonplace futuristic trope — that technology might create hermetically sealed chambers of crucial, instant decision-making, in which the outcomes will be decided by software that writes itself and algorithms that outgrow the intelligence of their creators, was beyond the sightlines of even the most fanciful sci-fi seers of his time. And yet, in substance and essence, he foresaw everything that confronts us now, simply by digging into the deep nature of what he calls ‘technique’. His conclusion was that analogous processes would take place within human beings, radical shifts in the existential structure of mankind that would change out of all recognition the average person’s engagement with reality.
‘With the final integration of the instinctive and the spiritual by means of these human techniques, the edifice of the society will be completed. It will not be a universal concentration camp, for it will be guilty of no atrocity. It will not seem insane, for everything will be ordered, and the stains of human passion will be lost amid the chromium gleam. We shall have nothing more to lose, and nothing to win. Our deepest instincts and our most secret passions will be analyzed, published, and exploited. We shall be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired.’
In summary, one might decide, ‘We will own nothing, and will become convinced we are happy.’
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