The Tyranny of the Technical Society

When we think of writers who are popular reads within neoreactionary circles, Jacques Ellul is not one who readily comes to mind (likely because he was writing in the 1950s, rather than the 1750s or 1850s).  Ellul, for those who are not familiar with him, was a French sociologist and philosopher who began as a Marxist but converted to Catholicism around 1930.  However, he was not ever really a traditional Catholic – much of his theology relating to so-called “Christian anarchism” (which centered upon his absolute rejection of violence, whether religious or secular) eventually led him to formulate positions which while holding to a high view of the biblical texts, tended to reject a role for secular government in the lives of Christians who were living by the Scriptures, which made him more popular with pietistic Protestant groups than with his own church.

However, this is not to say that there aren’t “NRx friendly” areas of overlaps between Ellul’s thought and that of neoreactionaries today.  For instance, his distrust of unrestrained capitalism is reminiscent of reactionary criticisms of capitalism as both vulgar and detrimental to a well-ordered society.  Likewise, Ellul was not altogether friendly to democracy and seemed to see democratic government as a bit of a farce – though given his experiences during World War II, he can perhaps be forgiven for not embracing more authoritarian forms.  Ellul was also concerned with the corrosive and detrimental effects which modernism – especially economic modernism – had on traditional societies.  So while he certainly was not a reactionary by any means, Ellul had some areas of commonality which should prevent him from being automatically stricken from any reading lists.

The book which I would like to discuss/springboard from is his 1954 work, The Technological Society.  In this book, he catalogs – in great detail – the effects which technique has upon various areas of life.  In the process, he more or less reports (and, in the process predicts) the ills of life in the modern world, from the fears of being replaced by automation to the increasing reverence for sportsball over religion and tradition, and much else.

So what is “technique”?  Ellul states in his preface,

“The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end.  In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.  It’s characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past.” (p. xxv)

As such, technique is not technology, machines, or the like.  Instead, it is essentially a worldview, one which we can understand as flowing outward from modernity, which encompasses the totality of a society which possesses it.  It is the inexorable drive towards the maximisation of efficiency, profit, and control.  Technology can contribute to this, certainly, but machines are merely a tool to be used by technique.  So for instance, in industry technique would not merely include the mechanisation of a production process, but would encompass all of the various areas (industrial hygiene, worker efficiency and productivity, psychological happiness and welfare, usage of resources, advertising propaganda to encourage consumption, etc.) which contribute to maximising production, transportation, and consumption, treating machine and worker alike as cogs in the process.  Human techniques would be employed by corporations and governments alike to keep workers and voters happy and distracted so that they present as little challenge to the functioning of the established systems as possible.  Technique essentially seeks to dehumanise every field of human activity, even those ostensibly centered around the human being, so as to eliminate wasteful human inefficiencies from the process.

As one might imagine, the application of technique to three particular areas – economics, the police powers of the state, and to politics – is especially insidious.  When applied to economies, technique creates the sort of monergocapitalism which subordinates the human being to the whims of godlike economic forces.  In such a situation, the jokes which many make about people being valued as consumers rather than citizens become reality.  When technique was applied to the powers of the police, we saw the rise not only of the penitentiary and the surveillance state, but the efficientization of every area of criminology, even down to things as basic as revenue generation through traffic fines.

But politics is perhaps the worst area of all, and his discussion of the technicisation of politics and the interface of the citizen with the state is where Ellul’s exposition shines the brightest.  He points out that the origins of the truly modern technique of politics began with Lenin, whose singular contribution was to harness the various apparatuses of propaganda, persuasion, and collective decision-making to the sway of technique and to remove politics from the realm of amateurs and dilettantes and to “professionalise” it to a degree never before seen.  Under Lenin, the use of propaganda by the state reached levels of effectiveness hithertofore unimagined and unimaginable.  The system for dealing with dissidents developed by the Soviet Union in its early days was a product of Lenin’s dark genius.  Even the bloody effectiveness of Stalin’s purges found their root in the efficient techniques pioneered by Lenin for stifling dissent and producing fear in political opponents.

Now, one of the key points to understand from Ellul’s dissection is that technique simply is.  Though often anthropomorphised, technique really has no morals or goals of its own.  Rather, technique simply has the tendency toward displacing every other concern – moral, ethical, or whatever else – with that of increasing efficiency.  This is why the modern world’s emphasis on “progress” – much of which is about the extension of technique into the human realm so as to create power – always and at all times seeks to displace every other concern.  The technicist – who may consider himself a progressive, a futurist, a capitalist, or a libertarian – will naturally devalue religious concerns which would oppose the extension of technique.  The same goes for ethical, philosophical, moral, and even merely sentimental concerns.  All must be swept before the bulldozer of technique.

One result of all of this is that technique is not the domain of any one ideology, despite being “progressive” in nature.  Any who dabble with it will become mastered by it, regardless of their outward forms.  Technique propagates itself – when one nation adopts it, any who hope to compete must adopt it as well.  Further, technique will always tend towards the most efficient application of itself, which means that all of its thralls will gradually approach the same singularity, regardless of their starting point.  For example, Ellul noted that though the United States and the Soviet Union were superficially great rivals whose opposition centered around contrary economic and social systems, in reality the two were actually extremely similar to each other in their applications of technique to the areas mentioned above.  Under Lenin and his successors the USSR pioneered propaganda techniques and other methods for stifling dissent and neutralising potentially recalcitrant populations, whether real or imagined, techniques which were adopted by the United States in dealing with its own political dissidents, and in the case of propaganda were even applied to capitalistic consumer advertising.  Conversely, though the USA was thought of as a great bastion of economic freedom and laissez faire capitalism, the USSR often adopted the same sort of planning and organisational techniques as found in the USA.  The USA by the late 1950s, in turn, had fully internalised the lessons the USSR had taught the developers of the New Deal and was pursuing a trajectory quickly moving towards a planned, managerially-based economy as well.  (Once you know this, Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series appears a lot more realistic.)

An obvious point that we can draw from this is that technique is the perfect vehicle for gaining and using power, even though it would not appear to lend any authority or legitimacy along with that power (since those would presuppose some form of moral or ethical right to use that power).

This is the situation in which we find ourselves today when dealing with the Cathedral and other power-consolidating progressive and globalist entities.  It’s apparent to all serious observers that genuine populism – which seeks to rely upon mobilising “the people” to make effective political changes from below – is not, and never will be, a successful vehicle for political action.  Democratic action, mobilising the will of the people, without elite participation, never works.  Even the seemingly successful mobilisation of populism in the early American Republic during the Jacksonian era only saw success because Jackson himself was able to mobilise the Scots-Irish backcountry elite in the West as a counterbalance to the Yankee and Southern planter ruling classes which were already dividing the country between themselves.  The American Revolution itself was essentially a successful attempt by colonial economic elites to displace the British ruling class in America.  The Russian Revolution was successful in large part because of the leadership provided by application of Lenin’s principles of Vanguardism, providing an elite about which the proletariat could rally in opposition to the old elites in Russia’s ruling class.

This is why putative outsiders like Trump or the Tea Parties never seem to have a long-term impact when they seek to “drain the swamp,” even after achieving electoral successes.

Whatever other failings the constituent members of the institutions making up the Cathedral may have, one thing – the important thing – which they have going for them is that they are absolute masters at wielding the political and social techniques that have been developed through progressive institutions for the last century.   Over a year ago, I observed that the USA and other Western nations have the “wrong aristocracy.”  That is, we have a ruling class which is “elite” in that it occupies high positions in our sociopolitical circles and is able to wield power, but that it is NOT “elite” when we consider the intrinsic quality of the individual people involved, who really do not naturally deserve their power and influence.  The genuine elite – natural aristocrats in our nations – are not the same thing as the ruling class.

So if this is the case, then why is our ruling class the ruling class? It’s because they have mastered the techniques involves with establishing all encompassing control over the surveillance, control, and influence apparatuses in our societies – the media, academia, the NGOs, the “Deep State,” and so forth.  They not only control these power-exercising and opinion-making organs, but are able to wield them effectively and efficiently using the lessons learned from previous generations of men who sought to gain and keep power in the modernist order.  They can co-opt any would be insurgents, or else neutralise them through any numbers of means such as public pressure, blackmail, or even by killing them in ways which can be plausibly denied.  This is why Tea Party Republicans become establishment schlubs within a year of being in Washington.  It’s why Donald Trump still finds his cabinet and other advisory organs to be lousy with globalists and open borders fanatics.

When neoreactionaries talk about “power,” this is what they are really talking about – the mastery of techniques relating to politics, economics, and the police powers of the state.  Above all others, these three areas provide the foundation upon which the Cathedral is built.

So how do we deal with this, if we are to at all?  How are we to undermine the foundations of the Cathedral if we want to bring it down and see a restoration?

Unfortunately, this is much more easily said than done.  As Ellul noted numerous times through his book, technique is inexorable.  You can’t simply choose to not use it if someone else is, and you can’t ignore it and hope it will go away.   Because it won’t. The Cathedral is not going to stop using successful and efficient techniques, especially not because we ask them to.  They will continue to use what has worked, and what continues to become more effective with refinement each passing year.

So if we’re to fight their technique, we have to use technique ourselves.  Neoreaction has invested a lot of brainpower into studying the techniques used by the Cathedral, though generally with a view towards trying to neutralise them.  However, I’m not convinced that “neutralising” these will really work.  To use power, you have to do the things that will obtain it, which means co-opting the methodologies of those who have themselves been successful.  Neoreactionaries and others on the alt-Right should carefully study the Cathedral’s techniques with a view towards improving upon them and using them to our own ends.  Rather than street-fighting with antifas, we should be sociopolitical innovators, taking what the Cathedral’s lessons teach us and exceeding the masters (this is not to suggest that NRxers and others are not doing this, but rather to affirm and encourage a redoubling of efforts).

Unfortunately, this carries with it the danger of being mastered BY technique and losing sight of the goals of tradition and restoration which neoreactionaries hope to achieve. While technique itself cannot be ignored – at least not when there are competitors using it as well – I DO believe that there is a choice available as to which directions technique can be channeled.  Much of neoreaction’s intellectual work will not be about simply replicating what the progressives in the Cathedral have done, but in adapting the lessons to our own terrain.  If we seek to see a genuine restoration of order, hierarchy, and tradition, then we obviously cannot simply repeat the actions of the progressives.  We must channel the power that comes from applying technique efficiently (and we must!) into directions which will bring authority and legitimacy along with it.  We must apply the force of will to overcome the seeming inescapable amorality of technique and restore a balance the doesn’t end up merely creating our own anti-traditional version of modernism.


10 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Technical Society

  1. After a masterful survey of social techniques of control and their deleterious effects, Ellul then concludes that the technocratic managerial state must be embraced due to mass population. So out of his critical hat Ellul pulls J.S. Mill? Never was there so disappointing an end to such a promising start.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. > Under Lenin and his successors the USSR pioneered propaganda techniques and other
    > methods for stifling dissent and neutralising potentially recalcitrant populations, whether
    > real or imagined, techniques which were adopted by the United States in dealing with its
    > own political dissidents, and in the case of propaganda were even applied to capitalistic
    > consumer advertising.

    Many of the modern advances in propaganda were British in origin, with stories like the “Rape of Belgium” and German corpse factories (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) in WWI. The Americans themselves independently perfected many techniques with George Creel and the Committee on Public Information from 1917 to 1919.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True…but Lenin was the one who first really put it all together and made it all a truly efficient powerplex.

      The Brits also invented the concentration camp, but we didn’t see them using it to the extent or with the efficiency of the Soviet gulag system, did we?


  3. I think that this might just be the best piece that you have written yet. I appreciate how you talk of a mechanism that is in motion

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One tried-and-true technique of the Cathedral that NRx should adopt is of segmenting its discourse so as to communicate appropriately and effectively to different types of segmented audiences and constituencies. There’s one version of prog discourse for academics, another for decision-makers, yet another for mass audiences, etc.

    In NRx, we need a populist NRx that can speak to popular concerns and interests in plain and populist language, thus readying the people to be mobilized by the elite when the time comes. We also a need a policy NRx that can speak to power in the language of power, showing that NRx can devise concrete and implementable solutions to various policy problems where Liberalism can’t.


  5. Now I finally understand what Frank Herbert referred to when he talked about “machine thinking” in Dune. In Dune thinking machines are forbidden not just because of the risk of robot revolution but because machine using humans start to think in a machine like way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and we’re seeing this today. There is quite a bit of construction going on at my company (putting in new laboratories, office space, etc.), and I saw a whole line of workers on their break – each one glued to his smart phone.

      No human interaction anymore, we might as well be pod people generating electricity for the Matrix.


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