Perspectives On Our Age Summary (9/10)

Perspectives on Our Age is a reflection by Jacques Ellul on his life and work.

If we wish to research the properties of water, we know better than to study only the properties of its basic components. The properties of water cannot be deduced from those of oxygen and hydrogen, because something new emerges when they combine… When it comes to the interactions between science and technology and the way they permeate society, producing new entities and structures, this is all too often forgotten.

In creating the concept of technique, Jacques Ellul has made an important contribution toward understanding our age. In my opinion this concept may well become as central for understanding our times as the concept of capital became for the nineteenth century. Our world has emerged from what Ellul calls a technical intention, which is the preoccupation of our civilization with the one best way of doing things. It involves studying every human activity and utilizing the results to build some kind of model. By determining under which conditions the model functions optimally, one can proceed to restructure that activity to make it as efficient as possible. The means to do so, in almost every area of modern society, Ellul has called techniques.

Just as nature presented “primitive” societies with challenges, so does our new milieu. One of them, as Ellul points out, is the threat technique poses to freedom. But we do not easily accept such a fundamental critique of our way of life because our existence is so closely bound up with it.

Ellul’s interpretation and expectations have been verified at a speed I certainly did not expect. Even the most recent world events can be explained by his concepts of technique, technique as life-milieu, and technique as system. The sad part of this is that Ellul would have preferred to be proved wrong, as a result of a decisive human intervention in the course of events an intervention based on values and aspirations other than those resulting from the influence of technique. Instead, as technical developments continue in the future, a change of course will be increasingly more difficult, while the negative consequences of technique continue to become more severe and widespread.

The Dominant Factor

People have said, and I myself have written, that our society is a society dominated by technique. But this does not mean that it is entirely modelled on or entirely organized in terms of technique. What it does mean is that technique is the dominant factor, the determining factor within society, which is altogether different from Huxley’s brave new world.

Society is made up of many different factors, ex: economic and political. Human beings have an irrational element. Being irrational and spontaneous, they are not fit for technique, and society, being used to ideologies, being historical and a product of the past, and existing in an emotional world of nationalisms, is as irrational as humanity and as unfit for technique.

We can focus on an important political discussion about the Third World, but in reality, the power of technique expands in regard to the Third World too and this we do not see. We are so excited by events, by circumstances, by the latest news, that in regard to fundamentals, we always feel we have time. Even if we do not understand the stakes of the game in regard to technique, we always feel we have a great deal of time ahead of us. But this is not true. If technique keeps growing, then disorder will keep growing; and the more disorder increases, the greater our fundamental danger.

The term rich nations remind Ellul of the Arab countries with their oil during his time. Of course, these countries are impressive with their influence on all economic and political life. In fact, however, the accumulation of their wealth is not bringing any true interior development or any kind of independence from the West.

It is, I feel, very important to realize that these riches do not permit the emergence of a new type of society. They simply allow the adoption, the purchase of what the West has already done. One need only think of the very characteristic example of buying ready-made factories, delivered with a key in hand, so to speak, and set up in the Arab countries. What is this? In fact, it is the implantation of Western techniques in the Arab world. Likewise, in the terrible war between Iraq and Iran, everything is Western, including the materials and the strategy. Nothing remains of Arab military culture.

Thus, the wealth of Arab countries does not give them real power. The countries with real power are those that have the technical instruments, that are capable of the technical progress that is confused with development. Ellul makes an important distinction between development and progress.

The technically developed countries experience growth of power and not real development.

Growth is chiefly quantitative and development qualitative. In an economy, aiming at growth means trying to produce more cement, more iron, or more wheat. Aiming at development means looking for the most balanced and least harmful economic structure, recognizing the value of the statement “small is beautiful” and achieving higher quality in consumption.

It is no coincidence that the Soviet world is beginning to talk about a market economy, a natural creation of prices through competition. Not that the capitalist system is better; rather, both sides are looking for the the most effective ways of using techniques.

Likewise, the Western world is talking more and more about economic planning. Hence, an obvious convergence, with identical objectives, namely technical power, and the domination and utilization of raw materials for technique. Ideologies no longer count. Whether the discourse is Communist or capitalist, liberal or Socialist, in fact, everyone is obliged to do more or less the same thing. All we can say is that ideological politics is now secondary, and that the conflict between the powers comes from an excess of power, an excess that extends beyond the national boundaries.

People used to give long explanations for war between capitalist countries, saying that capitalist production had to conquer new markets throughout the world. Therefore, it was economic output that caused wars. But now, the risk is obviously the excessive power of the three (and soon four) great creators of technique. They will soon find themselves facing one another in such a way that a conflict will be inevitable” — the conflict over the use of raw materials, for example. It is a question of life and death. This, ultimately, is what endangers world peace, and nothing else.

This goes back to what I was saying about the milieu. I know that it has in fact happened that when historical societies organized, small groups or sometimes individual people absolutely refused, saying: We want to keep living like monkeys in the forest. Of course, they could do so, rejecting the development of society. But this was no solution. Those who continued living in the forest became extinct.

The Present and The Future

But we cannot claim that we can go on living as in the nineteenth century. We cannot bring up our children as though they were ignorant of technique, as though they had not been introduced from the first into a world dominated by technique. If we tried to do that, we would make total misfits of our children, and their lives would be very difficult, if not impossible. They would then be more vulnerable to the powers of technique. Yet we cannot wish them to be pure technical experts, making them so well fit for the society dominated by technique that they are totally devoid of what has until now been considered human.

Hence, I think that on the one hand we must teach them, prepare them to live in technique and at the same time against technique. We must teach them whatever is necessary to live in this world and, at the same time, to develop a critical awareness of the modern world. This is a very delicate balance, and we should not delude ourselves. We are building a world that will be even harder to live in for our children than it is for us.

Ellul related a cynical experience he had that was very enlightening.

I am rather well acquainted with the president of Electricite de France (the French national utilities company which is also responsible for the nuclear power plants). I was talking to him, discussing the dangers of nuclear plants point by point. Finally, in regard to two items in particular, he acknowledged that there were indeed some insoluble problems. And then he made the following extraordinary comment: After all, we have to leave some problems for our children to solve.

He then quotes a few passages from The Technological Society.

It is literally impossible for the public to believe that so much effort and intelligence, so many dazzling results, produce only material effects. People simply cannot admit that a great dam produces nothing but electricity. The myth of the dam…. springs from the fact that mass man worships his own massive works and cannot bring himself to attribute to them a merely material value. Moreover, since these works involve immense sacrifices, it is necessary to justify the sacrifices. In short, man creates for himself a new religion of a rational and technical order to justify his work and to be justified in it.

Feeding the Machine

In this section, Ellul comments on the sheer load of the expectations on the individual in our technical society.

Never before has so much been required of the human being. By chance, in the course of history some men have had to perform crushing labors or expose themselves to mortal peril. But those men were slaves or warriors. Never before has the human race as a whole had to exert such efforts in its daily labors as it does today as a result of its absorption into the monstrous technical mechanism, “an undifferentiated but complex mechanism which makes it impossible to turn a wheel without the sustained, persevering, and intensive labor of millions of workers, whether in white collars or in blue. The tempo of man’s work is not the traditional, ancestral tempo nor is its aim the handiwork which man produced with pride, the handiwork in which he contemplated and recognized himself.

I shall not talk about the difference between conditions of work today and in the past “how today’s work is less fatiguing and of shorter duration, on the one hand, but, on the other, is an aimless, useless, and callous business, tied to a clock, an absurdity profoundly felt and resented by the worker whose labor no longer has anything in common with what was traditionally called work.

Consider the average man as he comes home from his job. Very likely he has spent the day in a completely hygienic environment, and everything has been done to balance his environment and lessen his fatigue. However, he has had to work without stopping and under constant pressure; nervous fatigue has replaced muscular fatigue. When he leaves his job, his joy in finishing his stint is mixed with dissatisfaction with work as fruitless as it is incomprehensible and as far from being really productive work as possible. At home he finds himself again. But what does he find? He finds a phantom. If he ever thinks, his reflections terrify him.

It gets darker…

Personal destiny is fulfilled only by death; but reflection tells him there has not been anything between his adolescent adventures and his death, no point at which he himself ever made a decision or initiated a 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 has sabotaged or betrayed it. There is no difference from one day to the next.

Yet life is never serene, for newspapers and news reports beset him at the end of the day and force on him the image of an insecure world. If it is not hot or cold war, there are all sorts of accidents to drive home to him the precariousness of his life. Torn between this precariousness and the absolute, unalterable determinateness of work, he has no place, belongs nowhere. Whether something happens to him, or nothing happens, he is in neither case the author of his destiny.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on March 18, 2022.

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I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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