“The myth of Progress has killed the revolutionary spirit”
Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was a sociologist and philosopher close to the anarchist movement in France and one of the inspirations behind the contemporary décroissance, or degrowth, movement.
Although a veteran of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation, and a student of Marx in his youth, Ellul was never fully part of the radical left in France.
This was partly due to his Protestant Christian beliefs: the Situationists, for instance, felt they could not work closely with him on that account despite the similarities in their respective positions.
Jean-Luc Porquet stresses that this did not mean that Ellul was somehow less revolutionary than other dissidents: “We mustn’t forget that Ellul was anything but a reformist and that he declared himself to be a revolutionary: he thought that this world is unjust and absurd and that we have to make profound and radical changes to its structure (which is in itself the definition of revolution)”. (1)
A general acceptance of the idea of “progress” is, after all, hardly the basis for a truly radical opposition to the status quo. As Ellul declared: “The myth of Progress has killed the revolutionary spirit”. (2)
Ellul was above all a powerful critic of the force which he termed, in French, ‘technique‘. He was referring to what most would call ‘technology’, but insisted that the ‘-ology’ suffix applies to the study of a subject rather than to the subject matter itself.
Because the English word ‘technique’ has other meanings, the German term ‘Technik’, much loved by the industrialist Nazis, better conveys his sense.
Right from the start, Technik’s machines have been about increasing profit, said Ellul. “The more a business is ‘productive’ and competitive the less human labour it employs”. (3)
“Despite attempts to demonstrate otherwise, the ‘new machines’ are machines to economise on the workforce. We see growing investment in capital and decreasing investment in the workforce, at the same time as the number of workers shrinks”. (4)
It was therefore not true to argue that Technik was “neutral” and that its value depended on the use we made of it. (5)
Human interests always came second in a society ruled by Technik. The machine never stopped, Ellul said, and to achieve maximum profitability people had to be organised to work the same way. (6)
He wrote: “The system behind Technik comes equipped with its own agents of adaptation. Advertising, entertainment by mass media, political propaganda, personal and public relationships – all of this, with superficial variations, has just one function, which is to adapt human beings to Technik”. (7)
Victims of Technik were “mesmerized by the multiplication of images, the intensity of noise, the dispersal of information” (8) which led them into “a universe of diversion and illusion”. (9).
They were torn from their belonging to the beauty of the natural world (their “withness” (10) in Paul Cudenec’s terminology) and trapped in a dystopia whose surface appearance revealed its inner reality: “Everywhere, Technik creates ugliness”. (11)
The same process lay behind the uniformisation of cultures, including those in the global south which fell prey to industrial Western colonialism.
Technik, according to Ellul, “breaks up sociological forms, destroys moral frameworks, blows apart social and religious taboos, desacralises people and things, reduces the social body to a collection of individuals”. (12)
A constant barrage of mendacious propaganda was needed to achieve and maintain this full-spectrum domination and exploitation, he explained: “The technological narrative is above all a narrative of lies”. (13)
According to this narrative, it was simply not possible to question Technik itself. Like the aristocrats of old, today’s technocrats considered themselves above the law, explained Ellul, (14) but also above all criticism.
It was clear that we urgently needed “nothing less than the break-up of Technik’s society” (15) he said, but the industrial system had declared itself “too important to be called into question”. (16) “No judgement is admissible which could risk standing in the way of Science or Technik”. (17)
It was not considered legitimate to counter the machine-logic of Technik with concerns about the ethical value of its activities, since it was regarded as self-evident that technological advance was always a good thing.
Wrote Ellul: “When it’s a question of the dangers, costs, and so on, the scientist or technician, who has run out of arguments, closes down the discussion with ‘In any case, we can’t stand in the way of progress’. There is thus something here which is absolute, unassailable, against which we can do absolutely nothing, which human beings must simply obey”. (18)
We were “indisputably in a society made entirely by and for Technik”, (19) Ellul argued, to which we were forced to submit by what he termed “a sort of state terrorism”. (20)
Ellul pointed out that Technik had always historically led to the centralization and concentration of power and described the resulting contemporary monstrosity variously as “the techno-military-state complex” (21) and “this scientific-state-techno-economical complex”. (22)
Identifying the many contradictions and difficulties involved in maintaining this system, he asked how it could be kept functioning and expanding. He concluded, with foresight which seems uncanny in the 2020s: “In truth, there is one way, but only one: the most totalitarian global dictatorship that could ever exist”. (23)
Video link: The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul (54 mins)
1. Jean-Luc Porquet, ‘Jacques Ellul: La Démesure Technicienne’, Radicalité: 20 Penseurs vraiment critiques, coordonné par Cédric Biagini, Guillaume Carnino et Patrick Marcolini (Montreuil: L’Échappée, 2013).
2. Jacques Ellul, <em>De la Révolution aux révoltes</em> (Paris: Editions de la Table Ronde, 2011), cit. José Ardillo, La Liberté dans un monde fragile : Écologie et pensée libertaire (Paris: L’Échappée, 2018), p. 167.
3. Jacques Ellul, Le bluff technologique (Paris: Hachette, 2004), p. 38.
4. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 36.
5. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 90.
6. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 104.
7. Jacques Ellul, Le Système technicien (Paris: Le Cherche-Midi, 2004), cit. Ardillo, p.157.
8. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 393.
9. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 27.
10. See Paul Cudenec, The Withway (2022).
11. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 98.
12. Jacques Ellul, La Technique ou l’Enjeu du siècle (Paris: Armand Colin, 1954), cit. Porquet, p. 13. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 667.
14. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 74.
15. Jacques Ellul, ‘Autopsie de la révolution’, Serge Latouche présente Jacques Ellul, Contre le totalitarisme technique (Neuvy-En-Champagne: Editions le passager clandestin, 2013), p. 99.
16. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 149.
17. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 414.
18. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 402.
19. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 51.
20. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 181.
21. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 160.
22. Ellul, Le bluff technologique, p. 552.
23. Jacques Ellul, Le système technicien (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1977), p. 287, cit. Serge Latouche présente Jacques Ellul, Contre le totalitarisme technique, pp. 33-34.