Of the many pathologies which afflict the modern Western world, one of the most pernicious is the soullessness of Western economic life. The essence of modernity, from an economic point of view, is to work for a repetitive eight hours a day so we can then go home and sit in front of a television for eight more, or else go out to the mall and buy useless junk that we don’t really need. Many in our societies recognise this problem, but feel powerless to do anything about it. We feel locked in, chained to a system which maximises “economic growth” and minimises our humanity. We have no choice but to feed the relentless machine of “progress” by offering ourselves as sacrifices to the great god Mammon.
Modern Western man finds himself in the grip of monergocapitalism – the inexorable, undivided will of the economic imperative. Many may be familiar with the Calvinistic theological position of monergism, which essentially posits that God will work through His Holy Spirit to bring about the regeneration of individuals whom He chooses, regardless of their actual cooperation with Him. The term comes from the Greek mono (“one, single”) + ergon (“to work”). Essentially, God’s action AND will alone (as it is often applied) are involved in the theological process of salvation. By analogy, economic monergocapitalism follows the same line – the only acts and will that matter are those of the capitalist imperative, the “invisible hand” that drives all transactions, all goals, all desires, all purposes. All economic life is ever more centralised, ever more monopolistic, ever more fitted into the same mold. To attempt to hinder in any way the progress of this economic imperative is to be a regressive, to be a heretic and a reprobate. Everything must be subsumed under the economic will, even the very essence of human life itself. We in the West have indeed reached the point where the human body itself, even that of the unborn child, is subject to dismantlement and sale to the highest bidder. Likewise with the human soul, captured by the vapid entertainments and propaganda of a society which enslaves the mind to the plasma screen TV.
What we see going on with respect to this monergocapitalism is an extension of the larger and more overall tyranny over mankind of “technique” which was discussed by Jacques Ellul in his book The Technological Society. In it, he discusses the role which technique (which extends far beyond mere machine technology) and its advancement plays in dominating human society ever more thoroughly. Technique is, essentially, any means by which any realm of the human life is regulated, systematised, and organised in what we might call “inorganic” ways. Mankind has always had technology and methods of organising his life, and had even had fitful starts at systematic science. However, it is only since the late 18th century (i.e. coinciding with the full efflorescence of “Enlightenment” thought) that human industry and life began to be dominated by “technique” in such a way that “progress” became formalised as a social aim and the function of economic competition became enshrined as the single acceptable driving force in society, with all others such as religion and morality being shunted to the side as “not useful.” Both man and machines were subordinated to the drive for economic improvement and advancement.
Ellul notes the descent of man from being a creature who uses technique to being a creature used by technique, as enterprise, production, distribution, and even consumption gradually transitioned from being merely technological, to being completely organised and commanded by economic compulsions,
“This phase of development was still dominated by the machine, and corresponded to what Mumford has called the paleotechnical period. During this period the instruments of the power mentality developed. It became apparent that mechanical improvements alone do not suffice to yield socially valuable results. This was clearly a period of transition in which inventions had not yet completely overthrown the older institutions. And they had not yet touched human life, except indirectly. It was a period of disorder. And the most glaring manifestation of this disorder was man’s exploitation of man. This disorder, however, led to a strenuous search for order, which developed first in the economic field. For some time it had been possible to believe that the increasing flow of merchandise would be absorbed automatically. But the illusion of liberalism collapsed very quickly. Little by little, the liberal system broke down before the profusion of goods which the machines blindly poured forth. It was inescapable that only technical methods of distribution would be able to cope with problems created by technical methods of production. There was no way around it. A mechanism of distribution and consumption was necessary, as precise as the mechanism of production, which itself was not yet sufficiently precise, merely because it was mechanical. It was imperative that the different parts of the productive mechanism be adjusted and that the goods produced correspond exactly to the need, in quantity as well as in quality. It was no longer sufficient to organize enterprise. The entire production had to be organised in all its details. And if production were completely organized, there could be no question of allowing consumption (which had, in the meantime, become mechanized) to operate without its own world-wide organization. These logical interactions, which emerged first on the national level, were soon found on the international level as well.” (Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, p. 114)
As a consequence of the inexorable application of technique to the economic life, man himself became a hindrance to the march of progress due to man’s imperfection and tendency toward other goals and ideals besides the merely economic. As such, technique operating for monergocapitalistic good seeks to minimise the role of humanity in the process of economic activity – crudely seen in the phenomenon of robots replacing workers, seen in a more refined way in the ruthless subordination of every aspect of the human being to the economic regulation of ever-evolving technique. Man becomes the servant, rather than the master, in his relationship to the economic life. The human actor is reduced to merely being a cog in the great conceptual machine called “economic growth.”
The terrible outgrowth of this process, of course, is that the perceived worth of the human spirit is greatly diminished, if not completely devalued. The only thing that matters is what will advance technique, which will make the process of economic growth and refinement more efficient. The conflict between the monergistic will of economic utility and the organic will of the well-rounded human life must be implacably and mercilessly resolved in favour of the former. Where man acts in ways that are anything less then perfectly economically efficient, he is wasting resources, wasting time, and is a drag on the system. His morality, his ethics – these are merely obstacles to perfect efficiency and the augmentation of the profit margin. He must either be subordinated or be cast aside.
“To go one step further, technical autonomy is apparent in respect to morality and spiritual values. Technique tolerates no judgment from without and accepts no limitation. It is by virtue of technique rather than science that the great principle has become established: chacun chez soi. Morality judges moral problems; as far as technical problems are concerned, it has nothing to say. Only technical criteria are relevant. Technique, in sitting in judgment on itself, is clearly freed from this principle obstacle to human action…
“This same phenomenon is evident in yet another area in which technical autonomy asserts itself: the relations between techniques and man. We have already seen, in connection with technical self-augmentation, that technique pursues its own course more and more independently of man. This means that man participates less and less actively in technical creation, which, by the automatic combination of prior elements, becomes a kind of fate. Man is reduced to the level of a catalyst. Better still, he resembles a slug inserted into a slot machine: he starts the operation without participating in it.
“But this autonomy with respect to man goes much further. To the degree that technique must attain its results with mathematical precision, it has for its object the elimination of all human variability and elasticity. It is a commonplace to say that the machine replaces the human being. but it replaces him to a greater degree than has been believed.” (ibid., pp. 134-135)
Ellul treats the triumph and continued dominance of technique as ineluctable. Yet, I do not think that it must be. I am optimistic where he was pessimistic (though he would have called himself “realistic,” of course). We can choose to reject the domination of technique, even though the price and penalty for this rejection may well be (at least for the time being) rendering ourselves incompatible with the prevailing economic imperative that has Western societies in its stranglehold. It is this seemingly universal influence of the modernistic emphasis on the economic and the secular (in the fullest sense of that term) which convinced many of the impossibility of resisting this trend and which leads to the despair felt by many sensitive and humane souls in our civilisation. We have become so convinced of the “progressive” assumption of an “arc of history” relentless bending towards a final “end of history” characterised by a complete subordination of the human spirit to the socio-economic machine that we can barely conceive that there might be alternatives. Yet, there are, and we must gather the strength of will to oppose the will of monergocapitalistic technique and to find these alternatives.
How do we free our minds and go about resisting the will of a seemingly all-powerful economic god?
Let us begin by observing that there is a difference between what I’m calling “monergocapitalism” here (though often just called “capitalism” by certain libertarians and other who focus on the importance of economics above all else) and the principle of “the free market.” These two concepts are not the same. Monergocapitalism is a technical matter, an issue of process and organisation that imposes itself on all matrices it touches. The free market, on the other hand, is a moral matter dealing with ethical and natural rights and responsibilities pertaining to how individuals and communities utilise the resources placed into their hands. As such, by definition monergocapitalism, with its ineluctable drive toward total dominion over all economic activity and actors, cannot be said to be “free” (just as theological monergism patently excludes free will). When the irresistible force of the “invisible hand” requires you to become ever more efficient, ever more robotic, ever less human in your interaction with the economic, when it leaves you no room to operate within an alternative system of morals and values lest your enterprise fail because of its “inefficiency,” you are no longer a free actor operating on a free market.
As such, the Right would do well to reconsider its unthinking cheerleading for “capitalism” as a driving force in society, regardless of its effects on society. The simple utilitarian fact of “more consumer goods at a lower price” or whatever other metric one might wish to use does not need to be, and should not be, the sole determining factor in the rightness of an economic system.
The dichotomy often drawn between “capitalism” and “socialism/communism” is a false one. There is a third way, and one which deserves to be fleshed out in much greater detail: Distributism. Distributism, in theory at least, seeks to disperse both property ownership and the means of production as broadly as possible. This economic philosophy was advanced by Chesterton, Belloc, and others as a means of avoiding the extremes of both state socialism and monopolistic capitalism, and sought to restore more traditional agrarian and propertarian themes, as well as the encouragement of class consonance through the renovation of the guild system. Within a distributist system, the emphasis of economic activity would not be on the maximisation of profit at the expense of moral, ethical, and communitarian concerns. Rather, the system would act to maximise human relationships and quality of life within the family and the community. Chesterton once said, “To give nearly everybody ordinary houses would please nearly everybody; that is what I assert without apology.” Distributism would sustain the rights and responsibility of the individual in the economic sphere, while avoiding the false sovereignty of the economic imperative.
We must be willing to go further and reject exactly this imperative. One of the principle criticisms I would have of libertarianism and so-called “economic conservatism” (using the American terminology) is the assumption that economic concerns are the only concerns, that matters of economic efficiency, profit maximisation, increasing the GDP, and the absolute autonomy of the individual economic actor take primacy over everything else. Those of us in Tradition and neoreaction must renounce this attitude once and for all. While giving matters of economics and production their fit place within the greater constellation of human activities and needs, we must focus on the quest to once again regain the things that enlarge and embolden the human spirit, those very things which libertarians and economic conservatives often dismiss as “useless.” We must return to faith and religion as a font of morality and as a source for the organisation of the deeper life. We must pursue a genuine broad-based education which teaches not merely facts, but how to think, reason, and create; which does not merely prepare someone to “fulfill an economic role,” but to be a well-rounded human being. We must regain again those higher traits of loyalty (both personal and social), of community, of nobility. We must seek to reverse the mechanisation and atomisation of human life which modern monergocapitalism has wrought in the Western world.
If Tradition and neoreaction are to be serious about seeking a return to a better, more enduring society, then we must assiduously work to undermine the implicit assumptions – such as the primacy of the economic imperative – upon which modernistic civilisation rests. Further, we must seek not merely a return to ancient forms. We must aim to recapture the ancient spirit and mindset which filled those forms. Our return cannot merely be one that produces empty shells which only look superficially like the good things from the past. Instead, we must seek to replace modernity with a living, breathing, all-encompassing fullness of life that looks beyond the mere economic and technical.