Monday, 14 September 2009
Zeitgeist 2: Technocratic utopianism
In a slightly desperate search for a new perspective on things, I recently watched Zeitgeist 2: Addendum. I had little objection to the first half of the film, mainly devoted to a further explanation of the fractional reserve banking system and its far-reaching implications. However it might have been useful to set this in the context of the longer term history of capitalism and imperialism in general. From the anarchist point of view that I hold, power is more important than money and has preceded it historically. So, while I agree that the mathematical instruments of financial speculation are a basic mechanism of power today, it would be useful to see the current speculative economy in historical perspective against other forms of power and oppression. There were occasional dark hints about 'the bankers' and their long-term plans, reminding us that we are on the territory of conspiracy culture. Not that I have any definite opinion on whether there is a great millenia-old conspiracy or not - how would I know? - but perhaps it should have been made clear what exactly the narrator was talking about. It was gratifying to see a film coming from conspiracy territory talk about the workings of the IMF, World Bank and 'economic hitmen' - topics that are often too tediously mundane for serious conspiracy heads in comparison to the intergalactic drama of Sirius, Draco et al.
At about the halfway point, the narrator states that the mechanism of fractional reserve banking is only a symptom of a deeper problem. My ears pricked up at this, but the diagnosis of the deeper problem seemed to be a slightly facile statement that stupid forms of religion are stupid. Amongst the quantity of Krishnamurti footage, I did not see a clear distinction made between the naive propositional beliefs supposedly required from followers of mass organised religions (a stereotyping of religious 'believers' questionable in itself) and a genuine spirituality in which the higher faculties of human consciousness are developed and explored. This argument seemed to be a form of crude rationalism in which the only way to understand the world is to question one's conception of it in a discursive way. Of course rational questioning of received beliefs is necessary, but this must include questioning the received belief in materialist rationalism, and in my opinion the recovery of the human faculty for non-discursive spiritual knowledge is one of the most essential tasks in building a sane and compassionate society that can live in at least relative harmony with nature. I understand that the dogmas, repressions and persecutions inflicted by the Catholic Church and other such political organisations have given a bad name to any mention of non-discursive knowledge, but that is no reason to replace them with rationalist dogmas which are arguably even more harmful in their effects, not least because rationalist dogmas are presented as anti-dogmas.
This leads me to my main point, which is that the second half of the film consists almost entirely of an advert for a naive technocratic utopian future. The argument, very similar to that of Marx, is that technology is essentially or potentially liberating but has been used as a tool of enslavement through the creation of artificial scarcity, and so in a high-tech society free from the profit motive, technology could finally free human beings from earning our bread with the sweat of our brows (or someone else's brows). A series of sci-fi animations are shown of space-age cities with efficient rapid transit systems and other impressive looking devices.
There are many obvious problems with this vision of the future apart from its crass, wide-eyed naivety. Firstly, if we look at the history of technology, especially industrial technology, we can see that in fact it has almost invariably been used to enslave people under the claim of liberating us. It seems highly dubious to claim that a phenomenon, in this case high technology, is essentially or potentially different from what it has actually been in almost all cases. E.P. Thompson provides documentary evidence in The Making of the English Working Class that the introduction of weaving machines - a crucial first step in the early development of industrial capitalism - was done for conscious and explicit reasons of social control. The introduction of machines allowed capitalists to bind the previously relatively independent hand-loom weavers into a regular factory timetable, to reduce wages and striking power by reducing the level of skill required, and to bring in lower-paid children and women. The number of hours worked by weavers increased, their earnings decreased, and the imposed discipline of the factory system allowed the factory-owning class greater control over the workers' culture. Far from being irrationally obstinate or Romantic stick-in-the-muds, the heroic direct-action revolutionaries of the Luddite uprising understood all of this, which explains both why they enjoyed such strong support from their own communities, and why machine-breaking was punishable by death. Now it seems odd to theorise a difference between what these weaving machines meant in actual historical fact, and what they could have meant in their ahistorical essence. This is not an odd example but an absolutely fundamental historical step in the development of capitalism. Nowadays, some critical thinkers celebrate the function of the Internet in spreading their ideas. This is to miss the fact that the enormous majority of electronic communication is within corporations. Whatever power it gives to us, it gives exponentially greater power to our enemies. We might also reflect on the sad circumstance that we can communicate electronically with someone hundreds of miles away, but are often unable to talk face-to-face with our own neighbours.
Secondly, all current high technology is dependent on the exploitation of natural resources through violence against ecosystems and indigenous people. Perhaps it is true, as the narrator claims, that technocrats have the know-how to make intercontinental maglev trains run at 400 mph, or to produce all the energy we need from solar power. Impressive and convenient as such marvels would be, they are all dependent on supplies of minerals torn from the Earth at the expense of the unfortunate people who live in mineral-rich but economically powerless parts of the world. Versions of high-tech devices that do not depend on rare mineral inputs are pure fantasy. What will the post-capitalist technocrats do if indigenous people object to their ecosystems being destroyed to mine rare minerals for the hyper-gadgets this film claims are so important for human freedom? How do people who live in low-tech societies in relative harmony with nature fit into the utopian vision? Will they have to be strongly persuaded of the benefits of the global technocracy, as they are now being persuaded of the benefits of global capitalism?
The focus on heroic high-tech solutions to our problems also obscures the many problems that cannot be solved by technology. The narrator speculates that robots will be able to carry out surgery. Perhaps. But heroic technological interventions are far from the only aspect of health and illness. Drugs and surgery may be able to save people from critical illness in certain cases; they cannot make us healthy. Only low-tech or no-tech approaches such as wholefoods, mental relaxation, exercise and holistic disciplines like the internal martial arts can lead to vibrant health. The heroic high-tech approach also seems to downgrade the crucially important art of food production. Will food in the techno-utopia be produced by machines? This is demonstrably inefficient and ecologically destructive. The high-tech standardisation, mechanisation, processing and transportation of food has been disastrous in many ways, and not just because of the profit motive. The only way to produce fresh, nutritious food in relative harmony with nature is by hand on a small local scale, using crop varieties locally adapted for micro-variations in conditions, saving seed, and growing mostly for consumption not exchange. Or will an army of small organic food growing serfs be left in the shadows at the fringes of space-age megacities as the spinning flying disks and supersonic maglev trains zoom over them?
Finally, high-tech inevitably means centralisation. Mind-boggling hyper-gadgets cannot be made without enormous investment - whether of money or of time, effort and organisation - in materials, equipment and specialist skills. The large scale and complication of the infrastructure needed to produce such items would be beyond the reach of any community small enough to make decisions at the face-to-face level. In a technocratic world, it is inevitable that some people will have more knowledge and therefore more control over the technology than others. It is inconceivable that everyone can be an engineer, metallurgist, materials scientist, and so on, all at the same time. A technocratic elite would inevitably have more power because they would control the technology. Even the most exciting and inclusive space-age domed megacities would have to be planned and that means telling people where they must live. Who's doing the telling? What if the people don't want to move? In my opinion, political freedom requires economic self-sufficiency. I and my friends cannot build a maglev train but we can grow food on an allotment or build a house from locally available low-tech materials, given the necessary skills, which are relatively simple. The skills of self-sufficiency at the community level provide independence from centralised economic structures, whether those structures involve money or not. A striking life experience for me was staying in a beautiful 250-year old house in Southern France that was built by a peasant family from the natural materials to hand - rocks, earth, rough-finished timber, straw and hay. To me, those are the kinds of skills and values that will allow humanity to build a future in which we no longer destroy ourselves by destroying nature, and they would not be promoted by submitting ourselves to the expertise of a technocratic elite on whom we would depend for our survival. To me, an ecological future must be low-tech, decentralised, largely self-sufficient at the community level, and based on a recovery of non-discursive spiritual knowledge - what we might call the technology of consciousness.