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Teeny-Bopper Revolutionaries: Part 5 of a Deep Dive into Jacques Ellul's "Autopsy of Revolution"
You need the organizational skills of the managers to turn a revolt into a revolution. But the process of institutionalizing the revolution at the same time domesticates it.
We see a similar scene unfold again and again these days. Earnest, pink haired youths gluing themselves to priceless works of art while seemingly helpless gallery guards and curators stand around helpless. Or they are gluing themselves to the road, stopping traffic and annoying busy people whose livelihoods depend upon them getting where they are going in a timely manner. Almost daily there is some “protest” for some “cause” or another. They believe themselves to be revolutionaries, bravely fighting against an unjust, oppressive and intolerable regime. They are fighting for their futures. The planet is being ruined. Someone is being threatened by “hate.” Their cause seems to them to be utterly righteous. But most of us know, or at least sense, that all is not as it seems. So what is happening? What makes a writer like Ellul so potent today is that he identified the early signs, put the pieces together, and laid out the trajectory of event which would lead toward the daily experience of our lives.
Most average people don’t want revolutions. They might endorse a protest or even a revolt, but few want a true revolution. They are violent. They are catastrophic and disastrous for many. At the same time, because of the nature of the betrayal at the heart of instantiating the revolution, the necessity of turning the desire for freedom from the intolerable situation into a plan that is then institutionalized, this process results in the domestication and normalization of revolution. No one wants to merely reform the system. They must act decisively and become revolutionaries. As a result, we have been made to believe that revolution is a permanent feature of our society.
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“Revolution is the daily fare of our affluent consumer society.”
The constant images of so-called revolutionary action, whether they are a small scale protests involving a handful of people, a larger protest, full scale riots or even color revolutions in distant lands, act as a vaccine and immunizer. Revolution becomes part of the constant stream of images and videos that dance across our screens. It creates its own cosmos, its own world, a pictorial universe. All revolution, whether large or small, becomes part of the mass media ecosystem. It ceases to be truly real. It is just another story. It becomes entertainment. It enters the world of the fictitious.
“The so-called consumer society has assimilated revolution so thoroughly that it, too, is just another item of consumption.”
This is the great power of the bourgeoisie managers: their ability to assimilate all threats to their own power. Everything is made to be part of “the process.” All things are rationalized and systematized. Even threats just become yet another agenda item on the next committee meeting. A group of experts is assigned to analyze the situation and develop a plan. The threat is then absorbed into the great structure of the grand unifying administrative system. This dynamic changes the very nature of revolutionary action. Once the revolution, and not just one particular revolution, but all revolutions, have been absorbed into the process of history and the grand managerial system is instantiated, revolutionary action is no longer against the system. Rather, it is all just another part of the system itself. Thus, in regards to our earnest pink haired protestors:
“Young middle-class supporters of a revolutionary movement should realize that, far from becoming revolutionists by their inflammatory idiom, dress, and behavior, they are in fact the logistic vanguard of the bourgeois to establish bridgeheads in the wholly alien territory of revolution. They have not deserted their ‘class’; they are its unconscious representatives.”
Whether it is George Floyd protests, anti-oil protests, gay and transgender rights protests, abortion protests, or occupy Wall Street protests, all of them work towards expanding the reach and power of the regime. The same could be said for all protests which seem to be “against” the regime such as anti-Covid protests, yellow vest protests, pro-life protests, the trucker and farmer protests. All protest is eventually absorbed into the system, strengthening it and extending its reach and power. If your demands are heard and met, this becomes a plan that then extends the power of the managers and the managerial system as they incorporate your demands into the system. If they resist your demands, this too strengthens the plan and inoculates them against subsequent protests of a similar nature. Once revolt becomes revolution and the plan is institutionalized and systematized, it has but one direction, to strengthen the power and reach of the system, the administrative state.
Once revolution becomes part of the system, an item for consumption, another part of the stream of images which enfold us, everything becomes infected with “revolution.” Every significant or rapid change becomes “revolutionary.” We have the information revolution, which was preceded by the communication revolution, which was preceded by the media revolution, which was preceded by the industrial revolution. You get the idea. We are told that our lives have been taken over by one revolution after another. But Ellul argues that industrialization was not a revolution. Rapid social change is not “revolutionary.” He argues that our post 1789 revolutionary world is in truth far more conservative and less revolutionary than we think. The nature of the administrative systems put in place to instantiate revolutionary values are actually a conservative influence in our society. This is hard to get our heads around, as we are constantly told otherwise.
“To appreciate the abuse of language fully, we must recognize that technology produces a society that is essentially conservative (though rapidly developing, of course), integrated and totalizing, at the same time that it introduces far reaching changes: but these are changes of identity, of a constant relationship to itself.”
What Ellul is saying is that even though it seems like everything is changing all the time. New technologies. New devices. New systems. New organizations. It seems like we are constantly having to adapt to a constantly changing environment, this is all on the surface. The fundamental rules of the system, the basic operating system remains the same. Underneath all of the constant movement on the surface, the rationalist, abstract, technical, managerial system never really changes. In fact, the constant state of flux on the surface keeps everyone off balance enough, constantly destabilized, that the underlying system is never able to be challenged. That underlying system is enormously conservative in relation to itself. You are encouraged to never delve below the constantly shifting surface ephemera to challenge the system itself, what we call “the state” in the totality of its multitudinous forms, and the operating system upon which runs, technique.
“Technology is anti-revolutionary yet suggests total change because of the ‘developments’ it brings, whereas in reality only forms and methods are altered.”
The all encompassing nature of the system actually prevents and kills the revolutionary spirit within the people. As we become every more integrated into the technical system of the managers, we conform ourselves to its exigencies. Everything serves to strengthen the system.
“[Technology] destroys the revolutionary impulse by increasing conformity to its own integrated structure.”
Thinking about whipping the people up into a fervor to react against the system? Creating a messaging program to counter the regime in fact actually strengthens it. The very use of propaganda and counter-propaganda is in reality, counter-revolutionary. All propaganda is a part of the technical system. Its use, even in opposition to the regime, interiorizes within people all of the changes that strengthens the regime. We become mass man whose will has been replaced with the impulses of the machine.
“Even activist propaganda, arousing the masses and propelling them into the ordeal of revolution, is in fact anti-revolutionary in that what he expresses within the revolutionary movement is no longer himself but someone else whose watch words and obsession live within him.”
What Ellul is saying here is that the person who is a product of propaganda, whether he is programmed for or against the regime does not matter, because the changes within the man which come because of propaganda are the same. The propagandized man fights both for and against the regime. It is the same person running on the same operating system whose will is controlled in the same way. Because both regime and its opposition run on the same technical operating system, they are in fact both parts of the same system, reinforcing the totality of the technical system.
“Propaganda alienates men from each other and attempts to draw alienated men into a war against alienation.”
You might argue that what is needed is to shock men out of their condition. We need to be more radical, to go harder, to make the messaging more extreme. But whipping up people’s passions and radicalizing them actually serves to vent emotions and absorb tensions, stabilizing society.
“The more extreme, outlandish and offensive the art is, the more demobilizing its effects on the real problems of society.”
In this regard, the social politics agenda of feminism, casual sex, abortion, gay rights, and now the transgender movement are all stages in a kind of social theatre played out across society. On the one hand, its outrageousness, in each progression from one stage to the next, serves to vent energies within the culture through the boundary defying behaviors and the outlandish actions of its participants. It dissipates the energies that might otherwise be channeled against the regime.
The reaction against the culture war also has the same result. It vents the passions of the citizens which they also would otherwise vent against the regime. It is a catch-22. If you don’t oppose the culture war, the society is undermined and the regime is strengthened because it will be called upon to address all of the problems created. If you do oppose the culture war, all the energy you might have otherwise directed into destroying the regime is now put into stopping the sexual “revolution” (which is in fact not a real revolution, just a series of rapid social changes affecting the surface layers but not the system itself) in all of its forms. Whether you fight or don’t fight the culture war, the techno-administrative system is strengthened.
The more that we talk about revolution, the tamer the idea becomes. When all change is “revolutionary” is anything actually a revolution? Ellul says that our present attitude toward revolution is the same as the former attitude we used to have in regards to God. The fear. The trembling. The recognition that we stand on holy ground. An all consuming fire. Now the once terrifying judge is little more than a senile old grandpa. So too the energy surrounding revolution. Even Marx himself argued that the revolution would come because the bourgeoisie would just wither away. Who talks about violence and revolution today? We are surrounded by armchair intellectuals who talk about principles and logic and the historical inevitability of “revolutionary change.” We develop theories of revolution without wanting to look at its concrete reality: the violence and catastrophic social upheaval, the changing of everything.
Ellul argues that the idea of revolution has become so degraded because our society is in fact profoundly conservative and stable. We have a single grand operating system that is never challenged and is the same everywhere. We need the appearance of revolution, a constant stream of ever shifting ephemera, pseudo-changes. We want and need a constant stream of crisis so we manufacture them and get them to blow up in our faces so that we can set about managing them. Does this remind you of the Covid-19 response? These so-called revolutionary crisis are a kind of revenge against the ordered technical sameness of our world. We manufacture crisis just to let ourselves know that we are still alive. As we do this, we drain the true revolution, the total cataclysmic change, the real revolt against the system, of all its energy.
In this regard, this corrupted, degraded and empty form of revolution, is fuel for the managers. They are no longer acts of terror, but are a plus event for society. We have become accustomed to sudden surface changes, what is one more? What is one more set of systems? One more agency? One more set of policies? One more response system? We need these crisis as a justification for the status quo. The bourgeoisie fear revolt, so the idea of “revolution” must be transformed into something other than the end product of a violent revolt. It must hint at violence. It uses the language of violence. But the end result is ever greater conformity to the system of the bourgeoisie. You have the revolutionary idea always at play without it actually resulting in a real revolt.
The state in all its manifestations and aspects wants this constant sense that everything is changing, that there is constant revolution everywhere. They want the social order, communities and their institutions, the embedded and organic fabric of society to be shredded and torn apart. In this the state, as the embodiment of rational revolutionary plan, is the aggressor. The state wants to be seen as the ally of the wants and needs of the masses. It wants to be seen as being allied with the common people and their concerns and issues, all while constantly undermining the traditional embedded organic social order, replacing it with abstract rational constructions rooted in the spidery fingers of the ever spreading administrative state.
“[The state] is revolutionary because it is controlled by the revolutionary class.”
To embrace the revolution, whether American or French, is to embrace the state. To oppose the state is to oppose the revolution. The state and the revolution are one. Whenever one opposes the one, he opposes the other. The state is the embodiment of revolution and is now its instigator. This is why teeny-bopper revolutionaries seem like instruments of the regime.
“The state establishes the instruments of revolution within its own boundaries…what a breathtaking spectacle it is to see a state sowing the seeds of revolution across the land.”
We have traditionally seen the state as the target of revolution, the object of hatred. But it has undergone a profound inversion. It is now the embodiment of absolute revolution. Ever present “revolution” becomes the state’s means of control and its prime vehicle for extending its own power.
The reality is that you need experts to manage and enact a revolution. These managers do not come from the proletariat. Nor do the managers have a revolutionary passion or fervor. The bourgeoisie managers will always degrade the idea of revolution into mere management. They will maintain the veneer of constant revolution, but only as a mechanism for demanding ever more management. There is the appearance of constant destabilization, while all the time the managers are expanding and stabilizing the managerial system over ever greater parts of society. Because of this, argues Ellul, the left is actually impotent and incapable of bringing about any meaningful political change as they are completely subservient to the demands of the revolutionary technical state.
Next, the conclusion: doing the hard thing, the “necessary” revolution.
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