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Ellul and the techno-state

I’ve also been reading a bit of The Technological Society by Jaques Ellul. He’s good on presenting technology as an increasingly all-embracing system with its own demands. He tends though to view technological rationality as solely concerned with the ever-greater perfection of means. It seems to me that to explain what’s going on around us we need to think of technology as integrated with a supreme human end that’s purely formal but nonetheless real—preference satisfaction. It’s true that we’re only allowed to form and act on preferences that are consistent with the overall system, for example by their “tolerance,” but preferences do matter.

His tendency to treat the technological system of ever-more-perfect means as self-contained without regard to any formally higher goal seems related to the French love of paradox and absolute system, and to his view that liberalism and technological society are radically opposed instead of closely linked. He opposes “freedom” to technology and talks about the former as a lofty goal in the manner of old-fashioned liberals without explaining what it’s for. That makes no sense. Freedom is power more or less broadly distributed, and as in the case of power generally you can’t say what it is without specifying what it’s for. You can’t define the effective without defining the good. That’s why ideologies like liberalism or Naziism that put freedom or power first simply as such end in incoherence and self-destructiveness. He seemed to think that the technological society would become ever more comprehensively administered in all respects, and took the Soviet model much more seriously than it turns out he should have. Technology is what works, though, and the Soviet model didn’t work for absolutely fundamental reasons.

I may or may not continue with the book. He goes into a lot of factual and argumentative detail that doesn’t seem of much interest 53 years after the book was published and 43 years after it was translated. I may decide that getting the general gist is enough.



I have some questions. What would be the problem(s) with saying that liberalism just is technological rationality, “solely concerned with the ever-greater perfection of means”? Given the nature of liberalism’s end—inclusive desire—is it really a problem for Ellul’s technological system to be “self-contained” and not ordered to something higher or outside itself? That is, is liberalism’s end of inclusive desire actually pure means? Can we take his model of a society of technological rationality as a model of liberal society, despite what he might have thought about the opposition between freedom and the technological society?

If so, maybe we could say something like this:

The objects of ever-greater perfection for technological rationality are not only techniques as traditionally conceived, but also our inclusive desires. The more inclusive our desires, the more we perfect our lives as means for the system that makes us means for others and for ourselves. Human interiority, the structure of human group life, and all the prosthetics (think big! all kinds of action at a distance) and techniques that we can fashion, all of this is to become means to means to means into infinity, because we are completely insane. The world is to be conformed ever more efficiently to our will, and our will is to conform ever more efficiently the world to our will. Life is about converting more and more of the world into means, amassing more and more power, and pressing that into the service of converting even more and more of the world into means, into power to be pressed into the service of converting more and more of the world into means, etc.

Since it never terminates in an extrinsic good, this means-to-means-to-means infinity leaves you with no actual basis for doing anything. Still, if you make that infinity into an idol, and then call it the future, freedom, autonomy, liberation, the mysterious projection of us supposed “divine sparks”, becoming, project, means, whatever, now you’ve got an aim you can select for action, and that action will carry forward this monster-making machine. It’s really just a means, but it is selected as if it were an end, as if it were Means, Harmony with Ultimate Reality.

It’s a total vision of order, especially for a bunch of monists, materialist or otherwise. By way of liberalism or the technological society, people remain means-to-means, open and becoming, better reflecting the world-all, the One, of which they are. Did you ever think that “fluidy” could be so deep, man?

But if inclusive desire is not a means, then the above is just a fantasy about what liberalism is.

Or for that matter security or not being made to feel bad about yourself. Such things are important in our society, and they seem to me primarily self-justifying end goals rather than pure means to something else.

I agree there’s a tendency to pyramid efficiency and autonomy endlessly, so that for example autonomy is the highest human goal, and autonomy is about freedom, and freedom is freedom to be self-determining, and self-determination is only truly itself when we determine ourselves as autonomous, etc. ad infinitum.

Still, that’s not all there is. Indulgence in hedonistic ends is no less basic and real in our society than the self-abnegating asceticism of devotion to formal conceptions such as efficiency and equality.

The two combine in odd ways, of course. For example various sexual oddities are thought good because they satisfy compulsions and seem pleasurable to those addicted, and also because treating them as good advances equality. On the other hand, one advantage of supporting equality, as Mr. Clinton has demonstrated, is that it facilitates and justifies taking one’s pleasure.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.