Man or Machine? The "Necessary" Total Revolution: Part 6 of a Deep Dive into Jacques Ellul's "Autopsy of Revolution"
"The state" will remain the enemy of the people until it is brought down. The only way to bring down the state is to bring about the end of the modern world. Is the cost too high?
So here we are. Ellul has explained it all to us. We have, since the great revolutions of the eighteenth century, been building a grand abstract, rational system that we now know as “the administrative state.” Jacques Ellul is often criticized for being long on description, but short on prescription. He identifies the problem, but does not tell us what to do about it. “Autopsy of Revolution” is different in that regard. Here is gives not just the diagnosis, but also the cure, if we have the stomach for it.
In talking about revolution at this point in the work, he draws on a concept he has used elsewhere in other writings, that of “necessity.” Ellul is cognizant that we live in a world of sin and evil, where people are born flawed and corrupt and they do bad things. The long term result of living in this world is that many of the choices we face are not strictly between good and evil but between the greater evil and the lesser evil. Ellul employs this category so as to avoid justifying moral evils as something good. He identifies his position as “Christian realism.” Sometimes the right choice is to do something evil, something that imperils your soul, because the other alternative is worse. You must stare directly at the fullness of what you have done, acknowledge it, and lean of the grace of God. With that in mind, Ellul says this as the final chapter of this work begins:
“For us ‘necessary’ denotes a moral imperative, a revolution that must be made.” Emphasis is Ellul’s
Ellul is staring at the choices we face as human beings in relation to the state apparatus we have built as part of the larger technological society and declares that we face a “necessary” choice. Some might push back and argue that “human progress” is rendering the need for revolution unnecessary. Society will work through its current tensions as step-by-step we slowly perfect all its mechanisms. But present day conditions seem to speak to a different reality, that progress has stalled. We are in decline. All of our day-to-day experiences breed the feelings that lead to revolution.
But Ellul wants us to check our revulsion and indignation. These types of emotions weaken us and make us vulnerable to manipulation by propaganda. If we act, it should be a calm clear choice, freely made. We live in a society which is every more abstract, less grounded in material reality. Significant numbers of us make our living as part of the laptop or email class. We spend our days dealing with abstractions, disconnected from the demands and needs of material reality. We are immersed in dancing images, with us all the time through the devices in out pockets. As a result, the problems we face and the threats to our existence, our future, are also ever more abstract, mysterious. We try to focus on problems, causes and sources for our dilemmas, yet the phenomena we encounter often turn out to be mere appearances. How do you fight an abstract reality mediated to us in flickering images that dance across our computer screens? When you can’t even properly see and experience the problem, or identify why you feel the way you do, or how you got into your current situation, how do you know when you have reached conditions for a “necessary” revolution?
“For revolution to be necessary, two conditions are requisite: first, man must sense to some degree that he cannot endure life as it is, even though he may not be able to explain why; secondly, the basic social structures must be blocked, that is, incapable of acting to satisfy his needs or providing access to that satisfaction.”
Ellul argues that if there is any possibility of settling a conflict without revolution, even if it is a revolt, man will find it and the revolution will not happen. The point of the necessary revolution is to force the exception which will by necessity result in the remaking of the entire system, giving it a new foundation. This is not tinkering. This is the “big one” for which the current system cannot adapt. If the exception cannot be embraced and society cannot find a new foundation, complete social collapse would be the other alternative. Ellul argues that the second essential condition simply does not exist at this time.
For those of us who are paying attention, the current reality speaks to a growing totalitarianism and the trend lines for the future do seem ominous; but at the same time, there is still a lot of slack and excess in the system. Things do not feel “blocked.” If they are blocked for some, it has not reached a critical mass of people. The world is not what it once was, especially for those like myself who grew up in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. At the same time, sensing that the trend lines are not good, is not the same thing as living within an intolerable situation with no other avenue but revolution. There are still other forks in the road which can be taken.
That said, while you can still go to Disneyland or vacation in Europe, while you can still buy that brand new truck, or walk about in relative freedom, there are growing anxieties about our lives. They don’t feel like they flourish they way we expect that they should. There is something about the system that seems off. It is grand and globe spanning. But the things which are supposed to give us meaning—that trip to Europe, the new truck, the current entertainments, the latest purchase, the media we consume—seem somehow insignificant. They don’t provide the meaning we crave. The rates of SSRI usage seems to speak to this. We sense that a meaningful life is not open to us. We attempted to replace the sacred, the presence of God, the role of religion, the life of the community with the acquisition of material goods. As our prosperity grew, so too did our anxiety. We had material bounty, but not much else. Now that this prosperity seems increasingly threatened, where do we turn to ease our anxieties?
“The vast adventure that has absorbed us for the past two centuries has left each of us in his own fashion more frustrated than triumphant, whether because we admit the futility of our occupations, or because the paltry quality of our satisfactions and our leisure, or the questionable values and way of life we pursue.”
Our lives are empty, but we refuse to admit this, lest it calls into question and invalidates everything we have pursued and built as a society. Our goals and aspirations all somehow seem misguided and futile. The world we thought we were building as a society has not arrived. Increasingly, it seems as if we waste our lives working in “bullshit jobs.” We lack the sacred standard that gives meaning to our existence. We have replaced the pursuit of God and the significance which a full spiritual life provided to chase historical significance. We were going to right all the wrongs and engineer the great society. And in spite of all the propaganda, the evidence of the failure of this titanic enterprise is everywhere all around us.
A significant part of the problem is that we have shattered communal life, telling ourselves that the individual is the foundational building block of society. But as each pursues his own satisfactions and his own beliefs, we have lost a sense of common purpose. The individual imagination is not enough. There must be a communicable reality which transcends the individual man. It must be at once grand and metaphysical, yet instantiated in the world around him, in the things he can see, touch, taste and the people he meets every day. This reality must be the product of a common shared sense of reality, true “common sense.” The individual cannot provide himself with a stable and satisfying purpose. The individual cannot manufacture for himself meaning in life out of whole cloth. Our society, if you can call it that, is banging its head against the reality that people living as individuals cannot give a society meaning.
“Yet the crucial question is life [and its meaning and purpose], and because industrial output does not overcome or remove or confront it, we say therefore that capitalist affluence has failed.”
This is the hard truth. We have excelled with our technical achievements. We have produced untold wealth and prosperity. But these same have not given our life meaning or purpose, nor have they satisfied our deepest spiritual yearnings. We are a hollowed out, empty people.
Ellul then zeros in one one idea, the linchpin of the whole system: growth.
“Everything is predicated on an ideology of growth, idealizing it and mistaking it for [human] progress.”
This idea, the we must have continual growth in profits, in income, in the size of our businesses, in material progress, in learning, in population, in everything shapes the whole of our experience and frames our aspirations as well as our interpretations of reality as a whole.
“…alterations conceived of as growth or even development ultimately reinforce a society’s self-image, never challenging it and inducing further conformity because that society clings to the self-image it projects, including its illusions of structural change, which always follows a pattern of exclusive quantitative growth.”
This idea of growth pushes us to want to produce more, make more, consume more. We must know more, invent more, build more. At the same time, society must grow ever more just, ever more equitable, ever more free. We consume ever more resources, never saying, “no” because we cannot stop growth in either production or consumption. It is not enough to make a steady, stable profit year after year, we need to grow our profits every year. The business must grow. The market must grow and expand. Every problem has a “growth” solution. If we grow technically and introduce “green” innovations, we can solve the problem of diminishing fossil fuel supplies. Our society must constantly be breaking down moral barriers so as to grow in compassion and freedom. Our rights must grow in number. It even defines our spiritual and moral lives. We are continually urged to “grow” as people. Personal growth, spiritual growth. Our churches are infected with the idea. We have confused the idea of discipleship and bearing witness with the growth of our church institutions. It is whole “church growth” movement. Everywhere we look things must grow, grow, grow. The growth idea drives and pushes “history” forward. There is the common refrain, that if you are not going forward, you are going backwards. The businessman and the political progressive share the same drives, expressed in different manners. It is an old impulse, that of Babel. We must build the tower ever higher, until it reaches the heavens. It is dangerous idea, argues Ellul. It causes us to believe that because we know more, produce more, control more, buy more, that we are more as a people. In fact the evidence is all around that we are the opposite. We have emptied ourselves and have become less as a people. Our drive for growth has made us less human, not more. It is this growth idea that that must be shattered, he argues. Only an “exception” level crisis, he says, can shatter this kind of core cultural drive.
“As I see it, that is precisely why revolution is indispensable and necessary: we must get off the standard one way street that starts with growth. That is a necessity.”
For Ellul, the question is not a matter of whether or not there should be a “necessary” revolution; rather, it is a matter of what kind. He boils it down to a binary, an either/or:
“A choice is forced upon us. We must decide between the accumulation, perfection and primacy of material things, and that doubt ridden and uncelebrated creature known as man.”
Must man be forced to adapt himself forever to the exigencies of the machine? Must he be shaped by the vast integrated technical system predicated on idea of growth? Must man subordinate himself to the demands of the internet of things? The two are irreconcilable, asserts Ellul. What will triumph? The needs of man or the demands of the machine?
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