I’ve recently picked up reading Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society again, after a year or so’s hiatus (it’s a great book, but even the publisher has to concede in the blurb that Ellul writes with a “maddening thoroughness”).
I’m glad I did, because his chapter on “Technique and the State” is proving to be one of the best explanations I have ever read for the politics of the last 30 years – despite having been written in 1954. Anyone wanting to understand why New Labour has developed in such a centralising and authoritarian direction – and why the next Conservative government is unlikely to be radically different – would do well to read this section of Ellul’s book.
The overall thesis of The Technological Society is that “technique” – which we could loosely define as “technology considered as a social force” – has become the dominant force in our society; that technology, far from being a neutral tool or servant of humanity, has the effect of reshaping society and even humanity itself to fit the inherent dynamic of technology towards “absolute efficiency … in every field of human development”.
In the fourth chapter, Ellul looks at how technique has affected the state. He observes that the private sector is far more effective at inventing and implementing techniques, but once technical progress is made, the state inevitably comes to make use of it.
Almost all areas of technique are utilised by the state: industrial, commercial, insurance and banking, organisational, psychological, artistic, scientific, planning and biological. Nor is this a matter of political decision or calculation:
No deliberate choice on the part of the state, no theoretical decision, has brought about this growth of technique; its causes were independent of the personal or collective. The modern state could no more be a state without techniques than a businessman could be a businessman without the telephone or the automobile.
The growth of technique leads to a fundamental change in the nature of the state, and to a reduction in the power and importance of politicians:
The state is no longer the President of the Republic plus one or more Chambers of Deputies. Nor is it a dictator with certain all-powerful ministers. It is an organisation of increasing complexity which puts to work the sum of the techniques of the modern world. Theoretically our politicians are at the centre of the machinery, but actually they are being progressively eliminated by it.
As a result, “the structures of the modern state and its organs of government are subordinate to the techniques dependent on the state”. There is therefore a convergence between the activities of modern states, regardless of their political system.
The most striking example of this at the present time must be the growth of capitalist economical techniques in China. More generally, Ellul can be seen as prophesying today’s worldwide framework for global trade under the World Trade Organisation, when he writes that:
there is one and one only efficient method for establishing a system of international commerce, and it is necessary to comply with this method, no matter what the view of the state.
If a state decides to put ideology ahead of technique – “to dream of the realisation of a certain kind of justice rather than to make use of technical means” – then it is free to do so. But if it does then “it must expect almost inevitable retribution such as the French Army suffered in 1940” (where French military doctrines had failed to take account of the technological transformation of warfare by the Germans).
A superficial reading of this chapter might suggest, however, that Ellul had wildly misread the situation. At the time he wrote, the most important manifestation of technique in the life of the state was planning, in particular economic and industrial planning. He seems to have expected that the end-result of technique would be wholly planned economies. Does this meant that the rebirth of economic liberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s disproves his thesis?
It would be interesting to see how Ellul deals with this in his later books on technique, but my view is the development of neoliberalism confirms Ellul’s thesis rather than disproving it. Neoliberalism was not a reaction against technique per se; it was a response to the failure of the particular techniques which were being introduced at the time Ellul wrote. While those who promoted neoliberalism may have been motivated by ideology, neoliberalism’s success was established on technical grounds: the perception that it worked better than the previous, statist approaches.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she was able to argue that the previous economical and industrial techniques had failed. Over the next decade, her government made changes that were justified on technical grounds: for example, that privatised industries worked more efficiently than nationalised industries, or that lower taxes were more effective for promoting economic growth than high taxes.
Labour initially tried to resist Thatcherism on principled grounds, but repeatedly failed to persuade the British electorate to prefer “fairness” over efficiency. The party only regained power with New Labour’s acceptance that the economic techniques established since 1979 must be taken as a given. Indeed, New Labour’s first significant action on taking office was to transfer a key aspect of fiscal control – the setting of interest rates – from political control to technical control.
New Labour’s attempt to combine economic liberalism with a social democratic emphasis on public spending was itself perceived as a technical success. The Conservatives followed the familiar pattern of opposing New Labour on ideological grounds, before embracing that technical consensus in the first phase of David Cameron’s leadership (the “heir to Blair” phase).
This explains the current situation in British politics. The credit crunch has resulted in economic liberalism being seen – rightly or wrongly – as having failed as a matter of technique. It claimed to be the most effective and efficient way to run an economy; that claim is now widely doubted, even derided. However, no alternative technique has yet presented itself.
Hence we see unedifying incidents such as the 50p tax rate in the recent budget. No-one really believes this tax rise will solve the crisis in our public finances: those who support it do so on ideological grounds – the belief that justice requires that the rich pay more than the previous 40% rate – while those who oppose it appeal on technical grounds (such as the “Laffer curve”) to claims that higher tax rates actually result in lower levels of revenue.
The Conservatives, however, find themselves paralysed in the face of this measure. They could argue that the current recession is not a failure of economic liberalism, but of social democratic interferences with economic liberalism, and that consequently what is needed is improved implementation of neoliberal techniques. This would involve promising to revoke the 50p tax rate and arguing the technical case for keeping the 40p top rate.
However, as Fraser Nelson argues in the Spectator, this would expose the Conservatives to ideological attacks by Labour; attacks which the Conservatives are still keen to avoid. The result is a messy compromise: of attacking the increase while refusing to revoke it. This is a microcosm of the broader problem facing British politics at this moment: the problem faced when a political system built around technique finds that it has run out of techniques to implement.