well, what was it that happened “five thousand years ago” ??

I keep prattling on about . . .
“the New Ways”
“an aberrant turn”
“never the same since”
“ruinous civilizational trajectories”

The text below is adapted from a 1963 address to the Society for the History of Technology by Lewis Mumford. Notice how prescient he was almost sixty years ago . . .

In the 1963 paper he focused on the technological aspect. The more general analysis leads to the concepts of the “Old Ways” vs. the “New Ways,” the latter being aberrant, socially pathological, and ecologically ruinous.

The New Ways — characterized by technological development, wealth accumulation, centralized statism, urbanism, most recently: industrialism — are surely unsustainable. Samuel Alexander hopes that we can guide a process of devolution “by design, not disaster” and that should, of course, be our objective. But it’s not too likely that, at this point, we can avoid some extent of collapse. What’s most important is that there can be some learning re: what happened during this problematic interlude of our species history.

- — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

We twentieth century Americans have been beguiled by the mystique of a persistent and enlightened “march toward democracy and affluence.” But our supposed liberation is being undermined by its contradictory socio-economic and technological basis.

Democracy is necessarily most visible in relatively small communities and groups, whose members meet frequently face to face, interact freely, and are known to each other as persons. As soon as large numbers are involved, democratic association must be supplemented by a more abstract, depersonalized form. Historic experience shows that it is much easier to wipe out democracy by an institutional arrangement that gives authority to those at the apex of the social hierarchy than it is to incorporate democratic practices into a complex system under centralized direction.

The tension between small-scale association and large-scale organization, between personal/communitarian autonomy and institutional regulation, has now created a critical situation. If our eyes had been open, we might long ago have recognized how a significant aspect of this conflict is deeply embedded in technology itself.

From late Neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other human-centered, relatively modest, but resourceful and durable. If I am right, we are now rapidly approaching a point at which, unless we radically alter our present course, our surviving democratic technics will be completely suppressed or supplanted, so that every residual autonomy will be wiped out.

The data on which this thesis is based are familiar; but their significance has, I believe, been overlooked. What I would call democratic technics is the small-scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill but always, even when employing machines, remaining under the active direction of the craftsman or the farmer, each group developing its own gifts, through appropriate arts and social ceremonies, as well as making discreet use of the gifts of nature. This technology had limited horizons of achievement, but, just because of its wide diffusion, it had great powers of adaptation and recuperation. This democratic technics has underpinned and firmly supported every historic culture until our own day, and redeemed the constant tendency of authoritarian technics to misapply its powers. Even when paying tribute to the most oppressive authoritarian regimes, there yet remained within the workshop or the farmyard some degree of autonomy, selectivity, creativity.

If this democratic technics goes back to the earliest use of tools, authoritarian technics is a much more recent achievement: it begins around the fourth millennium B.C. in a new configuration of scientific observation, methodical development, and centralized political control that gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify as civilization. Under the new institution of kingship, activities that had been scattered, diversified, cut to the human measure, were united on a monumental scale into an entirely new kind of theological-technological mass organization. In the person of an absolute ruler, whose word was law, cosmic powers came down to earth, mobilizing and unifying the efforts of thousands of operatives, persons hitherto all-too-autonomous and too decentralized to act voluntarily in unison for purposes that lay beyond the village horizon.

The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence “machines” (of human components) that were capable of exerting magnitudes of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics drew on inventions and scientific discoveries of a nascent high order: the written record, mathematics and astronomy, irrigation and canalization. Above all, it created complex human assemblages composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent “parts” — the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable. Despite its constant drive to destruction, this totalitarian technics was tolerated, perhaps even welcomed, in home territories, for it created the first economy of controlled abundance, notably immense food crops that not merely supported a big urban population but released a large trained minority for purely religious, scientific, bureaucratic, or military activity.

But the efficiency of the system was impaired by weaknesses that were never overcome until our own day. To begin with, the democratic economy of the agricultural village resisted incorporation into the new authoritarian system. So even the Roman Empire found it expedient, once resistance was broken and taxes were collected, to consent to a large degree of local autonomy in religion and government. Moreover, as long as agriculture absorbed the labor of some ninety percent of the population, mass technics were confined largely to the populous urban centers. Since authoritarian technics first took form in an age when metals were scarce and human raw material, captured in war, was easily harnessed, its directors never bothered to invent inorganic mechanical substitutes.

But there were even greater weaknesses: the system had no inner coherence — a break in communication, a missing link in the chain of command, and the great human machines fell apart. Finally, the myths upon which the whole system was based, particularly the essential myth of kingship, were irrational, with their paranoid suspicions and animosities and their claims to unconditional obedience and absolute power. For all its redoubtable achievements, authoritarian technics expressed a deep hostility to life.

Authoritarian technics has come back today in an immensely magnified and adroitly perfected form. Up to now, following the optimistic premises of nineteenth century thinkers like Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, we have regarded the spread of experimental science and mechanical invention as the soundest guarantee of a peaceful, productive, democratic, industrial society. Many have even comfortably supposed that the revolt against arbitrary political power in the seventeenth century was causally connected with the industrial revolution that accompanied it. But what we have interpreted as the new freedom now turns out to be a much more sophisticated version of the old slavery; for the rise of political democracy during the last few centuries has been increasingly nullified by the propagation of an ubiquitous socio-economic, institutional-technological Leviathan.

Let us fool ourselves no longer. At the very moment Western nations threw off the ancient regime of absolute government they were restoring a tyranny in a far more effective form, reintroducing coercions of a military character no less strict in the organization of a factory than in that of the new drilled, uniformed, and regimented army. During the transitional stages of the last two centuries, the ultimate tendency of this system might be in doubt, for in many areas there were strong democratic reactions; but with the knitting together of a scientific ideology, itself liberated from theological restrictions or humanistic purposes, authoritarian technics found an instrument at hand that has now given it absolute command of physical energies of cosmic dimensions. The inventors of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and computers are the pyramid builders of our own age: psychologically inflated by a similar myth of unqualified power, boasting through their science of their increasing omnipotence, moved by obsessions and compulsions no less irrational than those of earlier absolute systems.

Through mechanization, automation, cybernetic direction, this authoritarian technics has as last successfully overcome its most serious weakness: its original dependence upon resistant, sometime actively disobedient “servo-mechanisms” (people), still human enough to harbor purposes that do not always coincide with those of the system. Like the earliest form of authoritarian technics, this new technology is marvelously productive; its power in every form tends to increase without limits, in quantities that defy assimilation and defeat control, whether we are thinking of the output of scientific knowledge or of industrial assembly lines. To maximize energy, speed, or automation, without reference to the complex conditions that sustain organic life, have become ends in themselves.

The center of authority in this new system is no longer a visible personality, an all-powerful king; even in totalitarian dictatorships the center now lies in the system itself, invisible but omnipresent: all its human components, even the technical and managerial elite, even the sacred priesthood of science, are themselves trapped by the very perfection of the organization they have invented. Like the pharaohs of the Pyramid Age, these servants of the system identify its goods with their own kind of well-being; as with the divine king, their praise of the system is an act of self-worship; and again like the king, they are in the grip of an irrational compulsion to extend their means of control and expand the scope of their authority. In this new systems-centered collective there is no overt presence who issues commands.

Under the pretext of saving labor, the ultimate end of this dynamic is to transfer the attributes of life to the technology. But do not misunderstand this analysis. The danger to democracy does not spring from any specific scientific discoveries or electronic inventions. The human compulsions that dominate the authoritarian technics of our own day date back to a period before even the wheel had been invented. The danger springs from the fact that, since Francis Bacon and Galileo defined the new methods and objectives of modern technics, our great physical transformations have been effected by a system that overplays the role of instrumental rationality and makes control over physical nature the chief purpose of human endeavors.

Why has our age surrendered to the controllers, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics? The answer to this question is both paradoxical and ironic. Present day technics differs from that of the overtly brutal, half-baked authoritarian systems of the past in one highly favorable particular: it has seemingly accepted the basic principle of democracy, that abundance will eventually be generalized to all. The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the “democratic”/authoritarian social contract, all, theoretically, can look forward to the possibility of claiming the goods, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority — but on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires.

“Is this not a fair bargain?” the bureaucrats and technocrats — capitalist and socialist alike — will ask. “Is this not the horn of plenty that mankind has long dreamed of, and that every ruling class has tried to secure, at whatever cost of brutality and injustice, for itself?” I would not belittle, still less deny, the many admirable products this technology has brought forth, products that a humanistic economy would make good use of. I would only suggest that it is time to reckon up the disadvantages and costs, to say nothing of the dangers, of our unqualified acceptance of the system itself. Even the immediate price is heavy; for the system is so far from being under effective human direction that it may poison us wholesale to provide us with food or exterminate us to provide national security, before we “all” can enjoy its promised goods.

If we are not to be driven to even more drastic measures than Samuel Butler suggested in Erewhon, we had better map out a more positive course: namely, the reconstitution of both our science and our technics in such a fashion as to insert the rejected parts of the human personality at every stage in the process. This means sagaciously sacrificing mere quantity in order to restore qualitative choice, shifting the seat of authority from the mechanical collective to the human community, favoring diversity instead of stressing undue uniformity and standardization — above all, reducing the insensate drive to extend the system itself, instead of containing it within definite social and ecological limits. We must ask, not what is good for science or technology, still less what is good for General Motors or Union Carbide or IBM or the Pentagon, but what is good for humanity and the web of life.

There are large areas of advanced technology that can be redeemed by the democratic process, once we have overcome the infantile compulsions and automatisms that now threaten to cancel out our real gains. The very leisure that the machine provides for some could be profitably used, not for further commitment to still other kinds of industrial production, but by doing significant forms of work, unprofitable or technically impossible under mass production: work dependent upon special skill, knowledge, aesthetic sense. The glut of motor cars that is now destroying our cities can be coped with only if we redesign our cities to make fuller use of a more efficient human agent: the walker. The replenishment of democratic technics will necessitate downscaling, re-localization, and simplification — back to a point at which the system will permit human alternatives, human interventions, and human destinations for entirely different purposes from those of the system itself.


Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).