Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society
Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) was an illustrious French scholar who wrote about social philosophy and theology. In his highly acclaimed book “The Technological Society” (1954/1964), he addressed the question of what it means to live within a society that is run by an ever larger number of technicians. He tried to elucidate what this may mean to present and future human beings. According to Ellul, technique must be understood as the set or regime of means (or techniques) that are employed to execute a rationale toward a predetermined end. Risk and uncertainty are increasingly excluded from the world of the Technical Man. At the same time, ends themselves are turned into means, while means become ends. The criterion that determines these processes is the idea of efficiency. Economics and governance become subject to this doctrine, which places performance above achievement. With the acceleration of standardization, technique pervades an ever larger segment of social life until it becomes a global phenomenon. Along this course, Ellul introduced the controversial thesis that both American and Soviet society are increasingly ruled by the idea of efficiency and by technique, therefore both becoming illiberal societies in which technology becomes a new god, replacing the god of Christianity. In his own words, in the end "technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means."
Keywords Biocracy; Equilibrium; Economic Man; Fact; Mass vs. Community; Propaganda; Technique; Zweckwissenschaft
Jacques Ellul's Technological Society
It is nearly impossible to separate The Technological Society from its author and his illustrious biography. On occasion, the book has been criticized for its subjective attitude and tone. Ellul himself openly admitted that he made strong statements, yet maintained that he had never done so without elaborate reasoning. The book managed to transcend the genre of pure sociological analysis and became a milestone of critical thought on modernity and technology.
Jacques Ellul was both a social philosopher and a theologian. He was active in the Ecumenical Movement and a follower of Karl Barth (1886–1968). During the Second World War he was one of the intellectual leaders of the French Resistance. Because of his critical attitude towards technology and his literate references to Karl Marx, he was often described as being a socialist or Marxist. However, his work, particularly The Technological Society, shows that he was very cautious and critical in his reception of Marx and highly adverse to the totalitarian impetus of practiced socialism.
Aside from his technological critique, Ellul became famous for his statement that anarchy and Christianity had the same goal. He believed that science, and more importantly what he calls technique, have "desacralized" not only the scriptures but also humanity itself. In their stead, he argued, the object of worship has become the phenomenon of technique. Ellul promoted this conviction, most explicitly expressed in The Technological Society, throughout out his career.
The Technological Society was published in French in 1954, and translated into English ten years later thanks to the efforts of influential American scholars like Robert M. Hutchins, Scott Buchanan, and Robert K. Merton, who wrote the foreword. In it, Ellul outlined his view of technique, which he described as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (1964, p. xxv). Thus, even if it originated with machines, technique means more than just "machines" or some technological procedures or devices that have been crafted to achieve some goal. Rather, technique increasingly interpenetrates with every aspect of social life. Though the machine stood as the ideal-type of the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century technique has taken over people and the entirety of their activities. Thus, in Ellul's view, capitalism is not to blame for the developments that followed it, for capitalism itself has become governed by technique. It is technique that integrates capitalism into the fabric of society, just as it integrates the machine into society, for it "clarifies, arranges, rationalizes" (Ellul, 1964, p. 5).
In this regard, Ellul viewed reason and science as the combined forces behind the development of technique. Traditionally, claimed Ellul, technique is perceived as the application of science: it is the medium between material reality and scientific formula. However, Ellul stands this relation on its head. He argued that technique preceded science, thus reducing the gains of nineteenth century physical science to just a tiny period in the history of technique. In truth, Ellul said, technique had to wait for science to develop in human civilization, for technique rendered explicit problems of human progress that only science could solve. According to Ellul's account, if technique had not preceded science, science would only be hypothesis and speculation.
Essential for technique is its relation to organization, which is a central feature of modern society. The two processes that organization enables and that take hold of society's progress are standardization and rationalization. Society's progress itself is intertwined with the progress of technique. The technological society differs from prior forms of society in that it is characterized by technique, which rests not on tradition but rather on prior technical procedures. Therein, technique has reached its own form of autonomy.
According to Ellul, every technical operation, every actual application of technique in the real world, produces a "technical phenomenon." This phenomenon is rendered explicit in the two processes that lie within each actor: consciousness and judgment (i.e., reason). Consciousness creates the awareness of the advantages and accomplishments of the application of technique, while reason enables the progress towards new methods as well as the efficient use of existing means. The concrete phenomenon that emerges from the relation between reason and consciousness is found in the "one best means" to accomplish a task.
Aside from the application of technique as "mechanical technique" (machines) and "intellectual technique" (the storage of knowledge, e.g. in libraries, data-bases, and the like), Ellul discusses three interdependent divisions, he calls economic technique, technique of organization (or of the state), and human techniques.
Ellul was an attentive reader of Marx, yet he was also a critical one. In Ellul's iconoclastic interpretation of Marx, it is not the economy or capitalism that produces technique. Quite the contrary, only through technique can the economy develop. Economics must therefore be seen from two angles: as the dynamic force behind technical innovation, and as innovation's static counterpart, the organization of economy.
Marx and his followers believed that a society's economic base determined its superstructure, or its socio-political institutions. Ellul called this belief a "self-deception." Ellul viewed Marx's analysis as correct only in regard to the nineteenth century and not relevant for other periods. Instead, he held that technique is the actual base, in that it guides not only production, but also distribution.
Thus, economics is subsumed to technique and, as it intervenes in the sphere of the state through political economy, efficiency becomes the criterion for political agendas. Just as technique pushes economists to establish "exact procedures," so policy-making becomes characterized by "exact procedures" meant to make policy-making more efficient.
In following the ideals of physics, economists hope to establish "exact procedures." Thereby, in political economy, this ideal is adapted to be the maximum of efficiency in policy-making. But at the same time, economics fails to accomplish this goal, as is illustrated in the repeated occurrence of economic crises. What remains is the public's trust in the force (i.e. technique) behind both the science of physics and economics, even while it loses faith in economics. The basic instruments that policy-makers and economists in the "technical state of mind" therefore rely upon are the means of statistics, accounting and the likes — all methods that can be broken down to technical performances.
In this regard, Ellul argued, both planning and liberty are in a conflict, wherein both socialist and democratic societies increasingly drift toward planning and away from liberty, for the two techniques of intervention into macro-relations — norm and plan — have proven their ability to increase efficiency.
Planning suggests itself in all forms of modern society, for it is not the best economic but rather "the best technical solution" (Ellul, 1964, p. 184). The two remaining types of economy, corporate economy and planned economy, display equal characteristics that relate back to the prerequisites of technique. However, both types of economy are not found in the real world in their extremes. Instead they are ideal-types, or heuristic devices. For even in a planned society, not "every detail is integrated into the plan."
In actuality, there will be a highly unstable equilibrium between technique and freedom, state and private enterprise. This tendency, however, seemed for Ellul to be a pendulum swing toward technique. In this pendulum swing, the conflict between politics (or better: the polity) and economics is forced into a mulled synthesis where "politics disappears and economics is forced into submission" (1964, p. 197). Subsequently, both the market and the state are organized and structured by technique. That the Soviet Union of Ellul's era was in his view very close to the fulfillment of that state, he supplemented by the controversial statement that the United Sates was also "oriented in this direction very rapidly" (Ellul, 1964, p. 197).
The realization of technique would therefore be the end of liberal economy, which aims at profit, since the goal of technique is found in a combination of rationality and efficiency.
Additionally, technique is anti-democratic. The engineers, statisticians, accountants, judges and other technicians who are responsible for the proliferation of technical progress are not elected, but merely join their creed through another increasingly technical process of education.
According to Ellul, production, consumption and education alike are increasingly subject to the same technical process: standardization. While...
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