Radical Freedom

I’ve written about freedom before, where I began by presenting some ideas from William Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed, in a post called Economics and Freedom. Then later I threw my own quirky economic ideas into the mix with another post called Fake Freedom. But now I’m tackling a formidable French author, Jacques Ellul, on the same topic. I’m calling it Radical Freedom this time, because Ellul really challenges some of our sacred assumptions. Are you sure you really want to be free?

In the earlier posts, I discussed the difference between negative freedom (where nobody prevents you from doing what you want), and positive freedom (where you have what you need to do what you want). But it turns out, on reading Ellul, that these are both just Mickey Mouse versions of freedom. The real thing runs much deeper.

Ellul is best known for a book entitled The Technological Society (La Technique ou l’Enjeu du Siècle) in 1964. On reading it, I discovered that it applies as much to the current internet era than it did over 50 years ago. But Ellul wrote over 50 books, half sociology, half theology, and a few of them both. He claimed no-one could get a clear sense of his overall message without reading all of them. Well, I’ve taken too long preparing for this post already, so I’ll have to fly with what I’ve got.

Let me give you a couple of spoilers. First, I thought of calling this blog post Don’t Feed the Beast. You’ll catch the meaning of that shortly. Second, in the end, it’s all about deprogramming, without which you’ll never break free.

Let’s start with human nature. Human beings are interactive by nature. We thrive on relationships. We live together in communities, engaging with our families and those surrounding us. It’s not always harmonious. Often indeed we’re in conflict, but it’s still engagement — human-to-human interaction, the essence of life. We organize our lives together, seeking some degree of social order. We probe the underlying meaning of life and seek a shared understanding of its deeper currents. We extend ourselves outward, engagIng with the environment around us, searching for meaning in the larger web of life.

That’s humanity at its best, but it’s become kind of a romantic image nowadays. In modern times, to a large extent, we’ve lost all that. In today’s technological society, the intricacies of life have been replaced by lifeless technologies. That’s a bold statement, and like most bold statements only partially true — but too true for comfort. So let’s examine how Ellul comes to this point of view.

Over the span of history, technology crept up on humanity, but then suddenly accelerated to knock us off balance.  To overstate it somewhat — just to make the point — we lost the good life because we got sucked into the machine.

What machine? In past centuries, there were two industrial revolutions that were all about machines (based first on coal, then on electricity). But machine technology was a mixed blessing. They enabled us to make a lot more stuff with a lot less labour. But they reorganized our lives on a new and alien basis.

That was because these machines turned into capital, and they were owned by people whose only goal in life was to accumulate as much capital as possible. Over the course of capitalism, that goal became a matter of extracting as much revenue as possible from the land and the people — and paying as little as possible for them. It was called efficiency, and a Faustian bargain was eventually struck. Sell us your soul, and we’ll give you more goodies than you ever imagined.

Sell you our soul? Yes, just put your community on the back burner; forget about your foolish calling and your exaggerated sense of responsibility. Turn your aspirations toward just scoring as much satisfaction as you can right now. Organize your lives around the great productivity machine, and you won’t be disappointed. Don’t worry about confusing moral Issues, because we’ve trained academics to persuade you it’ll all be good in the end.

Goodies? Yeah, affluence baby, affluence — for everyone. Trust us, we have economists.

By this dubious route, efficiency gradually became the one sacred standard by which everything is judged. Some writers talked about how capitalists ripped everybody off. Ellul talked about how they convinced us all to worship their technology and live by the mantra of efficiency.

I call it the machine. Ellul called it, in French, la technique — which however does not quite mean technique in English. A better English translation in this context is technology. But since the 1990s, and the popularity of a band called Rage Against the Machine, moderns might understand it best as the machine. To repeat — we lost the good life because we got sucked into the machine.

Technical capabilities and commitments that were supposed to free us from the vicissitudes of nature had, in fact, enslaved us and created a newly threatening environment. According to Ellul, something essentially human is being lost as we increasingly conform to an artificial environment oriented to machines and their logic.

Ellul is very precise about La Technique. It has followed a revolutionary path — from labour-saving machines to a logic that governs every field of human endeavour — to a totality of methods that put efficiency at the core of human relationships — methods that clarify, arrange and rationalize everything that moves in the service of maximizing the ratio of output to input.

It gets worse. We live in that society where efficiency, in order to produce growth, overrides all other aspects of human relationships. But GDP growth is not possible without consumption growth to lap it all up. So a hyperactive advertising industry has been given free rein to generate obsessive consumption, all in the name of satisfying our runaway desires. The lever of control of this whole monolith is money. The manipulators of money shape the overall configuration of the machine that gives meaning to our lives in the name of efficiency. It becomes our very morality, as people are judged by their productivity.

Let me overstate it again, since it pulls out the main point quite nicely. The patterns of community life — with their engagement in the the rhythms of love and commitment — have been replaced by the cycle of compulsive consumption in the belly of the great productivity machine. Gone are the social roles and callings that once gave life meaning — replaced by a desire to succeed in the great economic matrix — the machine that substitutes for meaning.

Put in an economic context, the real Faustian bargain was selling our freedom for the promise of unlimited satisfaction. But the means for attaining that satisfaction — that part of the bargain — was to swap our freedom to live in meaningful communion with others — to swap that out for a regimen of conformity to the system of hyper-individual progress and efficiency. That is, all of our conscious desires must be directed toward those things that the economy produces efficiently — not toward relationships, not toward compassion, not toward responsibility and morals, not toward life — just toward getting the most crap for the least effort. And we bought into that scam with a passion.

This regime — Ellul would say — where we’re getting everything we want that is base and meaningless — is a fundamental offence to freedom. Even positive freedom — if it just means having what you need in order to get what you’ve been brainwashed to want — is meaningless precisely because it lacks any true purpose. Freedom without a calling is just being a slave to empty consumerism, and is not freedom at all. Christian liturgy states that serving God by serving our neighbour is “perfect freedom”. At least they know what freedom is about — freedom to do something meaningful — indeed doing something meaningful — which involves the self-discipline that consumption-junkies hate.

Of course the question arises, how do we get out of this hole? That has two aspects. It needs addiction therapy. And it calls for deprogramming.

Addiction therapy. How does AA do it? It has several steps, but two stand out in this context. First and foremost, no one is ever going to step out of any addiction without some higher purpose? AA is not a religious organization, and it discusses life purposes other than the spiritual — but still — it requires a purpose larger than oneself. It’s hard to be materialist and have a purpose beyond consumption. And second, rising above addiction requires an anchor. In one way or another, it requires ritual — something to lay out a structure so you at least have something ordered in your life. Liturgy, anyone?

Deprogramming. Well, centuries of indoctrination into the culture of the machine — reaching deep into the marrow of our bones — is not going to be reversed in another mere century. Regime change too often just hands the old levers over to new administrators. Sometimes, the most we can do in an alien environment is to cultivate pockets of grace — and of true freedom — in the belly of the beast. Actually that’s crucially important, and will slay the beast one day if we can grow it before time runs out.

But the first step is an awareness of being deep in the hole. Try Understanding Jacques Ellul. Or look into discernment.


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