The River

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Welcome to the Machine

I keep the above book at work on a shelf with some others -- Cluetrain, The Gregg Reference Manual, Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide, The American Heritage Dictionary, Burn Rate by Michael Wolff.

"Welcome to the Machine, Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control" is by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan. It's a knock-out, and not in a particularly pleasant fashion.

In an idle moment the other day, I snatched it off the shelf and began reading a random page. Some of what I read is below. I thought it rather appropos to my Dark Days musings.

"Welcome to the Machine", copyright 2004, Chelsea Green Publishing, pages 100-104


Wealth and consumption have come to form a never-ending circle: once work and wealth have been turned into a religion and made compulsive, the machine becomes self-propelling.

The dehumanizing impacts of bureaucracy also become self-propelling, as bureaucracy comes to dominate the quality of life and concentrate social, economic, and political power in the hands of a few. The concentration of wealth and power become inner and outer mirrors of the same dynamic: “This whole process of rationalization in the factory and elsewhere,” Max Weber wrote, “and especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master…[and it] takes over ever larger areas as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly rationalized.”

The problem, Weber understood, is nothing so straightforward as the existence of private property, or even a question of who controls the means of production. Weber and his colleague Robert Mitchels saw that the problem isn’t – and I hate to break this news to all you old commies out there – capitalism, with its basis in private property and profit. Michels, a socialist himself, described how socialist organizations are also dominated by a few leaders, declaring hi Iron Law of Oligarchy: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

In other words, regardless of mission statements that appear to be leaning left, right, up, or down, or whether they appear to be operating in the economic, political, or cultural domains, large organizations mean bureaucracy, and bureaucracy means hierarchy. Industrial society is too complicated for democratic governance. Once you accept the premises of our machine culture, centralization is inevitable, and efficiency must allocate the resources and rules control the machinery of the bureaucracy. This isn’t a (merely undesirable) by-product of industrial organization: it’s the purpose. Organization: from the Greed organum, tool or instrument.

The problem, then, as Weber saw, is that rationalization, order, and alienation are inherent characteristics of bureaucracy, and common to all forms of industrialization, socialist as well as capitalist: “The apparatus (bureaucracy), with its peculiar impersonal character…is easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it. A rationally ordered system of officials continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area: he merely needs to change the top officials.”

Every conqueror knows this. Don’t destroy the bureaucracies. Use them.

That is, if you want to keep the machine running.

It doesn’t matter who runs the machine, or ever for what purpose: “From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability. It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of organizations and for those acting in relation to it. It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.”

Do you want to put a human on the moon? Assemble a bureaucracy. How about eradicating Jews, Slavs, Roma, and other untermenschen? Assemble a bureaucracy. Want to try to by up land to protect it from being destroyed by industrial civilization? Assemble a bureaucracy. Want to try to dismantle the Panopticon? Assemble a bureaucracy.

But it’s not quite that simple. Bureaucracies – like other machines – are better at some things than others: just as guns can’t give birth and pesticides can’t make plants, a bureaucracy cannot foster a vibrant community embedded in a thriving land-base. Unfortunately for everyone and everything on earth, machines – including bureaucratic machines – are better at destroying than nurturing, better at destroying than letting alone.

Weber also saw the irrationality of rationalization – that it works against values, emotions, and happiness. He wrote, “No machinery in the world functions so precisely as this apparatus of men and, moreover, so cheaply…Rational calculation…reduces every worker to a cog in this bureaucratic machine, and, seeing himself in this light, he will merely ask how to transform himself into a somewhat bigger cog.”

We too soon forget that we are not machines, that we are meant for something better than this. We search for rewards only within the system, having forgotten that there is a whole world waiting for us to remember that we are human beings and to drop out of – and destroy – the machine, and to rejoin the living world.

Weber continued, “It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones…This passion for bureaucracy…is enough to drive one to despair. It is as if in politics…we were deliberately to become men who need ‘order’ and nothing but order, become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers, and helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. That the world should know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up, and the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.”

Weber held little hope that we would be able to oppose the inexorable grinding of the machine. He thought industrial bureaucracy was so efficient, so powerful, that is was inescapable. He wrote, “The needs of mass administration make it today completely indispensable. The choice is only between bureaucracy and dilettantism in the field of administration.” Why is that? “The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other kind of organization. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with nonmechanical modes of organization.” The result is that , as Weber states, “Without this form of (social) technology the industrialized countries could not have reached the heights of extravagance and wealth that they currently enjoy. All indications are that they will continue to grow in size and scope.”

Bureacracies, it seems, are the gray goo that is eating the planet. Weber states, “Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic organization.”

This is all true whether the bureaucracy is killing Jews, trees, or rivers. It is true whether you’re running a professional army or professional baseball team.

And the future? According to Weber, “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.” He also wrote, “It is apparent that today we are proceeding towards an evolution which resembles (the ancient kingdom of Egypt) in every detail, except that it is built on other foundations, on technically more perfect, more rationalized, and therefore much more mechanized foundations. The problem which bests us now is not: how can this evolution be changed? -- for that is impossible, but: what will come of it.”

Indeed what will come of us, and what will come of the living planet?

“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved.’"

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