From chapter "Authoritarian Technics"
Let’s explore some more examples of democratic and authoritarian technics. Baskets made from reeds would be a democratic technic, because anyone can make them. Obviously, some people can make better baskets than can others, and some people can learn techniques for making baskets which they can choose to share or not share with those around them. But unless you live in an area where there’s only one small patch of reeds who could be claimed and guarded by someone trying to gain a monopoly on basketmaking materials (and even then, you could make them out of bark or grass or some other material), no one can physically control whether you do or don’t make baskets. On the other hand, automobiles are a non-democratic technic. I can’t build one from scratch all by myself. Automobiles require mines (which require forced labor of one kind or another) and mining infrastructures, they require transportation infrastructures, they require manufacturing infrastructures, they require energy infrastructures, they require infrastructures on which to drive your completed non-hand-made automobiles, they require crews to maintain all of these infrastructures, they require military forces to steal, I mean, conquer, I mean, protect and defend, the land where the mines are located, they require police forces to defend these infrastructures from those who unaccountably don’t want these infrastructures on or near their homes, they require managers to keep the whole thing running, and autocrats of one sort or another to tell the military, police, and managers what to do.
Here’s another example. Bows and arrows are a democratic technic. Anyone can make them (albeit poorly at first; I’m not saying there aren’t skills to be learned, and I’m not saying that one person may not be more proficient than another; I’m talking about the capacity to construct and use a piece of technology free of distant control). Can you find materials to make a bow? Can you find materials to make a string? Can you find materials to make an arrow? Unless someone has a monopoly on feathers, you can even fletch it. And if you lose your arrows, you can make more.
Let’s contrast that with guns. Immediately we again run into the problem of mining and smelting the metals. Even if you already have a gun, you still have to get bullets and gunpowder. You (and your community) are not autonomous, but can be controlled by those who have access to the raw materials and infrastructure to create the tools (in this case gun, bullets and/or gunpowder).
Let’s do another. Passive solar is a democratic technic. Anyone can align a home to face the sun. Anyone can collect rocks to store the heat. No one controls the sun (and I can just see the look on the face of a capitalist as he reads this, then jots in his journal: “Note to self: find way to privatize the sun, claim ownership of it, then find way to force people to pay a royalty for each ray of sunshine they absorb. Should be no problem; I’ll pay Congress to pass a law declaring I own the sun and then get the police to enforce it. Get lobbyists on this tomorrow.”).
In contrast, solar photovoltaics, no matter how groovy and “alternative” they may seem, still require all of the infrastructures we mentioned above. They require an authoritarian social structure, with all that implies. They are in no way democratic or egalitarian, and in fact they aren’t even particularly groovy. And they’re incredibly environmentally destructive; take a look at photos of a rare earths mine.
The fact that anyone can make a piece of technology is not sufficient for that particular technics to be democratic. A small wooden plow, for example, would seem part of a democratic technic since anyone can make one, and pull it using his or her own strength. But members of a community being able to make a piece of technology is merely a necessary but not sufficient part of what defines something as a democratic technics. We must never forget that technologies affect our societies, and we must never forget to ask ourselves how these technologies affect our societies. Societies interested in sustainability and self-reliance have always asked themselves how new technologies will affect their communities. To not do so is a fatal mistake.
There are a few reasons we can say that plows underlie an authoritarian technics. The first is that to pull a plow is about as hard as to work in a mine, so plows lend themselves to the capture and use of slaves about as much as do mines. By 1800, about three-quarters of the people living in agricultural societies were living in some form of slavery, indenture, or serfdom, almost all of which could be blamed directly on agriculture. The only reason that isn’t true today is that human slave energy has been temporarily replaced by fossil fuels; when these run out the human slave percentage will return to its former heights. And of course none of this is to speak of the nonhuman slavery upon which agriculture is completely reliant.
Another reason a plow-centered technics is authoritarian is that the product of the plow’s use is food; if slaves are used to grow food for their owners, this means owners control the food supply. Controlling food supply is of course central to authoritarian regimes. The more necessary some product is, the more that control of the product by authorities leads to control of those who need the product; if those in power control my access to Cheez Wiz, they’re not really going to gain a lot of control over me, but if they control real food, they control me.