Start at 13:42 – 15:37 for images of Zuccotti Park being dismantled
The clearing of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators from the streets of various cities over the past few weeks has been a strikingly naked demonstration of the characteristic properties of what Jacques Ellul called “technique.”
Like other philosophers, Ellul thought of technology more as a state of being than as a collection of artifacts. “Technique” is the word he used to describe a phenomenon that includes, in addition to machines, the systems in which machines exist, the people who are enmeshed in those systems, and the modes of thought that promote the effective functioning of those systems.
In The Technological Society, Ellul called technique “the translation into action of man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is subconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature, take hold of chaos and put order into it.” The machine, he added, is “pure technique… the ideal toward which technique strives.”
From Ellul’s perspective technique aims relentlessly toward two fundamental goals: expansion and efficiency. OWS can be seen as a revolt against precisely those objectives. In essence the protestors are arguing that the social and political balance of power has been radically shifted toward the priorities of technique and away from their proper focus: the welfare of human beings. That’s as concise a summation of the Ellulian ethic as one could wish for.
Ellul argued that a certain amount of rebellion is not only tolerable in the technological society but necessary, simply because the strain of living up to the demands of the machine creates pressures that must find some form of release. Outbreaks of acceptable resistance help provide that release. The OWS protests were cleared, I think, because they threatened to get in the way of business as usual, and therefore crossed the line from acceptable to unacceptable resistance. “Popular will,” Ellul said, “can only express itself within the limits that technical necessities have fixed in advance.”
According to the statements of several mayors and other authorities, the OWS evictions were necessary because they posed a threat to public health and safety. This is what Ellul called “a rationalizing mechanism,” invoked to justify the operations of the machine. Such rationalizing mechanisms, he added, account for the “intellectual acrobatics” of politicians who insist that they support the rights of free speech and assembly even as they’re dispatching battalions of police to forcibly disperse citizens who are exercising those rights. Meanwhile the momentum of potentially meaningful protest is effectively blunted. Movements come and go; technique remains.
Ellul included in the category of acceptable resistance the persona of the Rebel. The Rebel is the uncompromising anti-hero who constantly appears in movies, music, and advertising (and on the street, for that matter): tough guys and gals who have the guts to go against the tide and win, or at least go down in a blaze of glory. This is stance that, as Ellul noted, hardly threatens the status quo, given that it’s less genuine rebellion than an image of rebellion, a fashion statement easily acquired through the purchase of whatever products the Rebel brand happens to have certified at any given moment. “I am somehow unable to believe in the revolutionary value of an act that makes the cash register jingle so merrily,” Ellul said.
One of Ellul’s central themes was that the forces of technique are relentlessly adapting human beings to the demands of the machine, demands for which, in their natural state, they are wholly inadequate. “It is not a question of causing the human being to disappear,” he wrote, “but of making him capitulate, of inducing him to accommodate himself to techniques and not to experience personal feelings and reactions…Human joys and sorrows are fetters on technical aptitude.”
Because this process of adaptation is not yet complete, living in the technological society continues to create tensions that, as mentioned above, need to be harmlessly released. In addition to acceptable rebellion, mechanisms that help accomplish this objective include most forms of entertainment, drugs (legal and illegal), propaganda and most forms of religion.
Doug Hill is a journalist and independent scholar who has studied the history and philosophy of technology for fifteen years. More of this and other technology-related topics can be found on his blog, The Question Concerning Technology, at http://thequestionconcerningtechnology.blogspot.com/
Follow him @DougHill25 on Twitter.