Politics and technique

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.

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7 Responses to Politics and technique

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Technique vs liberty

  2. Phil Walker says:

    I struggle with understanding where Ellul wants to go. He mounts a fair critique, and he certainly advances the clarity of distinction between ideology and praxis; but what is his ideal? We have been technological since the first man banged a couple of rocks together.

    And should we decide we want to oppose the use of technology for its own sake, we would find ourselves inquiring after the best means to struggle against the struggle to find the means which are best. A more self-defeating quest I am not sure I could imagine.

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Of the making of laws there is no end

  4. John H says:

    Phil: I think Ellul’s argument is that technique has, as it were, taken on a life of its own in the past century or two. Previously, technology certainly existed, but not in a sufficiently advanced or pervasive manner to become a dominant social force, as it is today.

    As for what he might put forward as an alternative: I don’t think Ellul has any easy answers to that (he doesn’t really do “easy answers”…). From other things he has written, I think that in rough outline his position would be a combination of (a) saying that there is is no alternative; that we’re going to hell in a technological hand-basket, and there’s nothing much we can do about it; and (b) urging us to resist technological determinism on a level of the choices we make as individuals and communities.

    Certainly I find myself oscillating between a deep appreciation for Ellul’s critique, and the stubborn fact that I rather like enjoying the comforts and benefits of technology. Heck, I’m typing this on my computer, through my broadband connection, with the central heating on, while listening to music on Spotify. Way to go with the rejection of technique, John…

    I just found the following quote here from Ellul’s 1990 follow-up to The Technological Society, The Technological Bluff, which seems to confirm my perception of Ellul’s position (emphasis added):

    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. How is this to be done? I do not yet know. That is why this book is an appeal to the individual’s sense of responsibility.

    The first step in the quest, the first act of freedom, is to become aware of the necessity. The very fact that man can see, measure, and analyze the determinisms that press on him mean that he can face them and, by so doing, act as a free man. If man were to say: “These are not necessities; I am free because of technique, or despite technique,” this would prove that he is totally determined. 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.

    At the beginning of this foreword I stated that this book has a purpose. That purpose is to arouse the reader to an awareness of technological necessity and what it means. It is a call to the sleeper to awake.

  5. joel hunter says:

    Wachet auf! Midnight hears the welcome voices…

  6. Pingback: Love at first sound « SimonPotamos

  7. kc says:

    Hi there. Great post. You might be interested in reading The Political Illusion. Ellul expands his original thesis from The Technological Society and his thoughts on politics most fully there. Similarly, there are further thoughts in Propaganda. But it sounds like you already know Ellul pretty well…

    And to respond to some of the comments above, one of the most important misreadings of Ellul and Technique is failing to see that the world we live in, the Technological Society, is fundamentally different than any society has previously seen. It is not that we have never had technique or technology before, but a major shift occurred in the modern age which Ellul is specifically addressing. His works on history, The History of Institutions (4 volumes), lay this out more fully, but are not yet available in English. As Ellul himself says of those who make this argument against him:

    “They are missing (and this is the meaning of what I have been trying to shed light on from the beginning) the radical newness of our age – the fact that technique today has nothing at all in common with previous forms of technique.”

    I believe this is the thrust of chapter 1 and the first section of chapter 2 of The Technological Society. This argument is also made by Andrew Goddard in Living the Word, Resisting the World, which is a great, though scholarly, introduction to Ellul’s thought.

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