Politics in an age of advanced technology

For Ideas - 08ellul - 05 Mar 1982 --- French historian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) held the highest teaching diploma in France in Law. He was a Professor at Law Faculty at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Institute for Political Studies) in Bordeaux from 1937 until 1980. (Sophie Bassouls/Corbis) THIS IS THE LARGE HI-RES VERSION

Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.

It’s worth returning at this point to an almost forgotten classic: Jacques Ellul’s masterwork The Technological Society (La technique) of 1954 which anticipated much of this development. With respect to the technological transformation of both economics and the state, Ellul wrote at the time: “The fact that the economy and the state are reciprocally joined is technically founded in such a way that the two tend to become aspects of the same phenomenon, a phenomenon which, moreover, is not the result of a simple accretion of previous phenomena. It seems to me particularly important to emphasize this new character. Because of the existence of techniques we are beyond the problems of ordinary étatism or of socialism. It is not the simple phenomenon of the growth of power or the struggle against capitalism which is decisive here. We are witnessing the birth of a new organism, the technical state.” (Quoted from the English translation of 1964, pp. 196-197)

In describing this development, Ellul emphasizes the distinction between the technological machinery (implements, tools, and instruments) and the techniques we have developed to produce, use, and interact with this machinery. For Ellul our society is, first and foremost, a society of techniques, rather than strictly speaking a technological society. (The title of the English version of Ellul’s book is thus potentially misleading.) He anticipates in this way by twenty years Michel Foucault’s famous examination of disciplinary society in Discipline and Punish. Ellul’s “technique” and Foucault’s “disciplines” are, indeed, closely allied notions. Where they differ is that Ellul pays more attention to the way techniques interact with technology.

The two agree, however, in the way they see human beings embedded in the resulting social order and determined by it rather than as independent, autonomous agents. Ellul writes: “Let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress … and that it is he who chooses among possible techniques … He is a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques … He decides only in favor of the technique that gives the maximum efficiency.” (p. 80) Ellul commits himself thus to a technological determinism that certainly needs scrutiny. Is he right, for instance, when he adds later on: “It was not the public which demanded air travel and television. Technical progress created these things, and they were technically diffused and imposed on the public.” (pp. 212-213) It is true that the public did not demand air travel or television before their invention. But this does not mean that they were “imposed” on it. We are dealing rather with the creation of new desires based on others that are more fundamental and that are certainly not the product of technical manipulation. First, there was the desire motivating the inventors of these devices. Then came the new possibilities created by their inventions and these, in turn, stirred previously dormant desires in the public. Without our more basic drive to move and our basic desire for visual stimulation, these inventions might not have taken off. But Ellul is right when he concludes that all that is natural and that is natural in us gets transformed in the technological society. “Economic technique tends less to eliminate the natural than to integrate it … But when the natural is integrated, it ceases to be natural. It is an element of the mechanism, an element which must play its role.” (p. 217)

Ellul’s is, however, not only a technological determinism but also an economic one. He believes that in the technological society “maximum efficiency” and “utility” are the determining factors. He writes accordingly: “The development of techniques is responsible for the staggering phenomenon of absorption by economics of all social activities.” (p. 158) And he adds: “Economic life, not in its content, but in its direction will henceforth entirely elude popular control. No democracy is possible in the face of a perfect economic technique. The decisions of the voters, and even of the elected, are oversimplified, incoherent, technically inadmissible. It is a grave illusion to believe, that democratic control or decision-making can be reconciled with economic technique.” (p. 162) And it follows for Ellul that: “Popular will can only express itself within the limits that technical necessities have fixed in advance.” (p. 209) But then the question is what we understand by efficiency and utility. For a medieval Christian, the erection of a cathedral would have been useful in a way in which it is no longer for us and constructing it with the help of craftsmen and prayer would have been the most efficient way to do so. Usefulness is, after all, a transitive notion. Things are never useful in themselves but always for something else. So, the question becomes what our technology is meant to be useful for and that may not be determined by technology itself.

Ellul has few illusions as to where technological development will take us. “History shows that every technical application from its beginnings presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are much more disastrous than the lack of technique would have been. These effects must exist alongside those effects which were foreseen and expected and which represent something valuable and positive.” (p. 105) Among the secondary effects of technological development are extensive new means of social control. “The techniques of the police,” he writes, have as their necessary end the transformation of the entire nation into a concentration camp. This is no perverse decision on the part of some party or government.” He is using this provocative language in order to indicate the coming of what we would now call the surveillance state. “To be sure of apprehending criminals, it is necessary that everyone be supervised. It is necessary to know exactly what every citizen is up to, to know his relations, his amusements, etc. And the state is increasingly in a position to know these things.” (p. 100)

Ellul is convinced that technological development will go on to shape and reshape our political order. Differences in the theories of government will not make much difference to this. Capitalism and communism, democratic and non-democratic systems of government will all be affected in the same way. “The structure of the modern state and its organs of government are subordinate to the techniques on not dependent on the state. If we were to consider in turn each of the indispensable services of the modern state, we would find that they are becoming more and more alike, regardless of the theories of government under which they operate.” (p. 271)

Critical questions are certainly appropriate concerning Ellul’s claims. For one thing, he ignores non-technological factors that direct and inhibit technological development. Among these are the environment, the availability or poverty of resources, financial constraints, as well as the beliefs of those creating and using technological means. Ellul, moreover, does not see that there might be alternative technologies available and that, hence, choices exist in what kind of technology to develop. (See Andrew Feenberg, Alternative Modernities). He also fails to take into account that concentrations of power may lead to a new dispersion of power and that dispersed power has always within it a disruptive potential. (See Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, chapter 8)


  1. I like this critical commentary on Ellul. I’m surprised we don’t hear more about him these days, given his overlap with Foucault, not to mention the unintended consequences of the internet that finally seem to be stirring up much needed attention. The Facebook scandal and controversy surrounding Google have caught the State in a somewhat embarrassing position. From the beginning, government told these digital entrepreneurs to “go at it, boys,” “do whatever you want.” The complete lack of regulation is scandalous. This is an example of your point about human decision-making being an important variable in the direction and effects of technological development.

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