From chapter "The Dictatorship of the Machine"
All of which brings us back to Lewis Mumford. The fact that an authoritarian technics emerges from and leads to authoritarian social structures is only part of why that technics is called authoritarian. Another, perhaps more important reason has to do with how the technics themselves gain authority over a culture. The logic behind the technologies can come to rule. The technics, and not the people, and not the landbase, are in control.
We see this all the time. Or more precisely, because unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture, we don’t see this; it rules our lives, but we take it as normal.
For example, let’s talk about fracking. Fracking is sold as a way to get more energy. More energy is sold as way to make people’s lives better. Among many other problems, fracking poisons groundwater. Communities are having to fight to protect the water they drink. As in drink. As in one of the things we have to do to survive. This means that those who benefit financially from fracking are poisoning the groundwater necessary for the survival of affected community members. A reasonable descriptor for those doing this is sociopath. Not only must sociopaths be stopped, we also need to ask what is wrong with a society that allows sociopaths to poison the drinking water of members of other communities. No, it doesn’t allow sociopaths to poison groundwater. It encourages them to do so, and rewards them for this behavior.
The frackers can (and will) argue that they are doing what is best for the economy. And that will be making my point precisely: who is in charge? Who is actually making the decisions? Are they being made by human beings in community, or are they being made by those who are serving the technics that called fracking into being, and which is being influenced by that same technology? The technics is controlling society, causing it to poison even its own groundwater.
Two days ago a judge overturned a ban on fracking voted in by the people of Fort Collins, Colorado, writing, “The City’s five-year ban effectively eliminates the possibility of oil and gas development within the City. This is so because hydraulic fracturing is used in ‘virtually all oil and gas wells’ in Colorado. To eliminate a technology that is used in virtually all oil and gas wells would substantially impede the state’s interest in oil and gas production.”
There you have it. Neither protecting your drinking water from being poisoned nor any notion of community self-determination shall be allowed to impede oil and gas production.
Remind me again: who’s in charge?
We can do the same exercise for oil. Same selling points. Same harm. And we can add its role in murdering—sorry, reorganizing—the planet. The planet is undergoing the most rapid heating in its history, contributing to the greatest mass extinction in its history, and a fair number of people believe global warming will drive humans extinct within the next generation or two. Yet this society keeps on exploring for, extracting, refining, and burning oil. Is it just me, or does this line of action seem to have a very strong downside? Once again, who is making these decisions? Either sociopaths who must be stopped, or the technics itself, which must be dismantled and destroyed.
We can go through a whole raft of other technics, but it all boils down to the same: actions are taken to protect and further the technics, not living beings. We can do this for corporations. Corporations are ostensibly legal tools to facilitate commerce. But when corporations—legal fictions—control social decision-making processes, the tools are literally in charge. The tools—corporations—are authoritarian. We can do this for money. Money is ostensibly a legal tool to facilitate exchange. But when social decisions are made not primarily because they serve humans and nonhumans, that is, not because they serve life, but rather because they “make money,” then money is obviously controlling or guiding these decision-making processes. This is true on smaller scales, as individuals are forced to make decisions they would not otherwise make, because they’re forced to earn money to survive in a capitalist economy (which, as we’ve discussed, is not coincidental; the laws of apartheid, for example, were drafted specifically to drive people out of their subsistence economies and into mines). And this is true on larger scales, as the wealthy often have far more money than they will ever need to survive the rest of their lives, and still they continue to accumulate; money has become an end in itself. We can do this for power. When social decisions are made not primarily because they serve life, but because they increase the power of the decision-makers and others of their class, then power itself and not life is the real authority behind the decisions. We can do this for agriculture: once you have set yourself on the path of overshoot and drawdown—overshoot is when a population of any given species living in a particular manner exceeds the place’s carrying capacity (or the maximum population of that species who could live in that place in that way forever without harming that place); and drawdown is the harm done by these overpopulations who exceed carrying capacity, permanently drawing down carrying capacity—the technics itself and the physical conditions it creates lead to conquest and slavery. This can only stop with the (probably involuntary) abandonment of the technics. We can do this for “technological progress,” which is more accurately termed “technological escalation,” since the real point of the “progress,” as we’ve seen, is most often to escalate the control and reach of those in power. This is entirely to be expected in a culture based on authoritarian technics. It is also to be expected in a supremacist culture. And if you have a culture based on competition—and of course, it often comes as a complete surprise to members of this highly supremacist, highly competitive culture to learn that there have been cultures who are neither supremacist nor competitive; and to learn, further, that the erroneous belief that every culture, indeed all life, is and must be guided by competition is itself a central social part of an authoritarian technics—that competition will drive this “progress,” this “advancement,” this escalation.
If, as in Dawkins’s story of Suckers and Cheats, you have two cultures who are not supremacist, not based on authoritarian technics—in other words, they are, to use Dawkins’s word, Suckers—they can coexist more or less forever. Now introduce a third culture, which believes in the Great Chain of Being, which perceives itself as superior to these others, which is based on authoritarian technics, which, through overshoot, has converted its landbase into human beings (and, most importantly to this particular example, soldiers) and into machines for war. What happens next? Well, that’s a story we’ve seen a few times over the past several thousand years. The authoritarian culture will do its worst to wipe out the non-authoritarian culture and steal their land. It will then proceed to steal from and destroy—I mean, manage; I mean, reorganize—this landbase to fuel its authoritarian structures and to fuel further conquest. Those survivors among the non-authoritarian cultures who aren’t wiped out will probably, if they are to continue to survive among the Cheats, need to adopt at least some of the attributes of the authoritarian, conquering culture. Now let’s introduce a fourth culture, which is also supremacist, authoritarian, and so on. Let’s say the machines of war of the two empires are on par. Next, one of them invents a new technology of killing (or otherwise extending the control of those in power). What happens then? The other empire has to somehow match it, or risk being conquered. Each time someone develops some new and more powerful technological means of control, the other culture must match or exceed it.
This brings me to ask again: who’s in charge?
This is one of the ways the technics themselves control the society.