Jacques Ellul described his central concept of ‘technique’ as being:
“…the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”
He was concerned here with organisation – particularly with the organisation of society, of technology and of the ways of doing business we pursue – and the consequent levels of deleterious effect on people like us arising out of these kinds of organisation.
Simply put, Ellul saw well that the applications of what he calls ‘technique’ in areas like the means of production and distribution; the financial and economic methods in use; the laws and the regulations we are bound by and subscribe to; are, as ways of doing things, harmful to our societies and to our lives.
For the most part and in affluent societies most of this harm takes the form of constraints and deprivations of freedoms and capabilities. The case for populations in non-affluent societies, in regard to how peoples there are adversely affected by technique as it is being used in affluent countries, is more tangible and more greatly pronounced in the forms of physical constraint and physical deprivation. Nonetheless and moreover – no-one wins out of it; not even the affluent law makers and captains of industry and government members.
I want to add that technique is used inthe way it it is, because it has become necessary for it to be used as it is, and that we are locked-into a self-fulfilling inevitability for further development which has arisen out of the paths we chose as nations and individuals way back in the early the days of industrialisation. My argument then will be circular, in that the rise of these Shibboleths of ‘technique’ so for to become the standard, accepted, ways of doing things – the open markets, the ownerships of capital and labour, even our representative democracy, our debt, credit and interest arrangements, and so on – their powerful grip has locked us into certain consequences arising from them as forms of social, political and economic organisation. These consequences demonstrate that technique, as Ellul denominates it, being applied and carried out automatedly without further thought by us in and as its own justification and for its own sake.
The simile I want to use to help covey what I mean concerns an item of baggage packed for a trip abroad and locked by a lock at the top when zipped up. The trip is our life-journey as we and our societies head towards what is to come in future. Like all trips, it was booked some time back and the arrangements for it put in place – ticket, seat, destination, departure point, hotel, and so on. The item of baggage was packed well previous to the trip also; and its contents zippered and locked up some time before the trip actually began.
Now most trips these days go ahead and pass fairly well as much as they were planned to pass – lost baggage and in-flight disruptions are in recent years largely managed down to a minimum by carriers. And unless there arises a serious problem – like an engine shut down – equating in our simile to a major war breaking out or a natural disaster of magnitude occurring in the world, then our futures in general, like our trip on an airplane, are mapped out fairly well in broad terms in respect of how they are going to flow.
The baggage we packed is zippered and locked up – there are no changes in and no access to its contents whist the air journey is taking place – thus the contents in it are fixed. Lots of contingent things might happen on a trip – coffee spilt; stormy weather; a diversion; toilet blocked; movie great; a good sleep – are amongst the myriad things possible, even likely. But the contents of the baggage are fixed and shut in the hold; and thereabouts are isolated and not able to be tampered with.
This item of baggage – in our simile – includes amongst other things our legacy means of doing technique, of organising ourselves in society, and with these are also carried in the bag their inevitable consequences and effects that arise inevitably out of these means.
Let us call these consequences attitudes, laws, rights, obligations, regulations, duties, conventions, conformities, traditions, all clustered around and governed by the forms of technique which give rise to them; the monthly credit card payoff, the monthly visit for a prescription medicine, the daily getting the kids ready for school, the school run in the car; the car’s servicing due soon, and so on. These small daily obligations and routines are shaped and necessitated by the way technique is being applied to our lives and so life, our life, is being organised even in our narrow localities and events.
(I was born and brought up in Tottenham, North London. As a youth I would travel by train to work. Every morning for five years I stood on the platform beside a man with a cloth cap a brown mackintosh and a pipe smoking. I then moved away and left the area. Some twenty-five or so years later I found myself on that platform one morning again and there beside me in an older version was the cloth cap mackintosh and pipe. Ever-after to my mind the fellow concenred represented to me a symbol of how an enslavement of uneducated working persons is imposed and organised by way of the application of what Jacques Ellul describes as technique.]
The short thesis of this article is then: that we have built a society on enthusiasms for, on an overplus faith in, science, scientific method, technological innovations, market forces, capital, regulation, law, credit, commerce, consumerism, production, including celebrity and its hero-worship; and thus historically we have placed an unwarrantable faith in these items, by believing them to be the solutions to the problems and issues we face in living our lives – problems like the getting of food and shelter, obtaining a job of work and means to live, finding entertainment and recreation, getting education and training. The ways we have elected to pursue these things like a cuckoo in a nest have grown up to rule the roost for us. They are the bedrock we laid down unwittingly and our everyday activities form their overlying strata and so are now our bed we must lay upon it.
Like Macbeth we cannot easily turn back:
‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er’ [Act 3]
We have organised our means and amenities of life and their procurement for our use and consumption so thoroughly that a mass consumerism has been made possible. This consumerism in its turn has been put together in such a way as to be deeply dependent on this straightjacket technique and organisation being kept in place. The upshot, the bill, the price we have to pay for this static underlying status quo is that our own selves and our lives, in unspeakably minute detail and with close levels of control have been made themselves objects of ‘technique’ to be lived out.
Hence we are, we have made ourselves, and have colluded in making of ourselves, an organised people in every detail by way of imposing via application of technique a coercion, entailing a general management of our outlooks, of our habits, of gettingour necessities, of us having no clear alternative. So far gone are we that not only are we unaware we are so far gone; we are so far out of the way of what would be far better, far more human and fulfilled, that we stand contained and constrained by our acquiesicence in accepting technique’s ‘mind-forged manacles’
Technique then has been hallowed and espoused by us; hyped up and bigged-up so much that even our leaders now believe it as their own propaganda. It is now so firmly and deeply embedded within us in our daily lives and in how we do things, organise things, that it is almost immovable, and for the most part it is unconsciously perceived by us as being like our ‘second nature’ – a bad unkickable habit which we retain, and think we are clean.
Just like all the product on our retailers shelves it is being sold to us, has always been being sold to us, as a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; the apotheosis of the ages, after centuries of striving and venture by our struggling ancestors – the big payoff for our history of human ingenuity and invention: Because you’re worth it. We are all labelled prize winners – but the prize-givers have feet of clay.
So we find ourselves a society at large which has been by its own means locked into a kind of Bedlam, a madhouse; and it is just as if it were our own selves, our essential humanity and heaven-promised ‘life in abundance’, which has been zippered up in that baggage in the airplane hold and locked up with a lock for our journey through life.
Be assured there is always a metanioa possible; a turning around; even for mile-long seagoing tankers. Any such change of direction has to do with us being helped to ‘awaken’ (see article) and with us thereafter bearing the responsibility thereby laid upon us ‘awoken’ person ready able and willing to work selflessly for the true good of others.
[NOTE: There was in recent years a UK Secret Service Agent found dead in a flat in London. He was found zippered up in an item of baggage. No satisfactory enquiry into his death was made and many observers considered this lack of due process by the authorities was deliberately allowed and that his Secret Agent career was involved in the affair. A few ‘semi-official’ putative ‘explanations’ of his demise were passed to the media to broadcast. One was that he had zipped himself in and could not free himself – a failed Houdini. Another hinted at a ‘sex-game’ which ‘had gone wrong’. Murder was never really truly considered as an explanation. The inquest found ‘death by misadventure’]