Hannah Arendt was the author and philosopher of the Nazi era of inhumanity; of totalitarianism, of the ascendancy of soulless mechanical acting where humanity loses itself in instruction, obedience and order.
She described the behaviour of such functionaries as Adolph Eichmann as “the banality of evil” where people who we would not necessarily consider ‘bad’ do appalling things. They become part of the machine, deeply socialised – because we are as a species so incredibly social, and only act ‘rationally’ within a set of social norms and implicit beliefs. Arendt was highlighting the unthinking acceptance of this mechanical life and, with that unexamined acceptance, raised real questions about what is the essence of being human. And that unexamined acceptance raises other questions about the consequences.
Arendt quotes W H Auden.
All words like Peace and Love,
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased
To a horrid mechanical screech.
We were exposed to that mechanical screech with fascism, and with Stalinist state communism. But do we see that mechanistic autocracy only in hindsight? The question is; are we exposed to that infernal screech still, in other forms of administration and policy framing? I think we very much are.
And yet we are ‘accepting’. To not accept is to be radical, extreme, out of step, a wishy-washy artistic type, irrational. Perhaps a poet. Quelle horreur.
We hear the screech with the metal on metal jarring of the corporate automaton; the hierarchical order of a machine reduced to outputs, tasks and ‘accountable’ measures. Human as machine; animal as machine; society as machine; economy as machine; corporation as machine; planet as machine. We hear it in the accosting of good science and quantitative disciplines into a rationalisation of the insane. We see it with the reduction of the whole damn planet in all its glorious complexity to a neoliberal economic defining of all things as weights and dollars – yes, life included – to infinite and measured ‘resources’. We see it in the pursuit of ready money, quantitative ‘instrumental rationality’ without the guiding rudder of ‘moral rationality’, transactions and markets.
We hear it with the hubris of technocrats who
would synthesis and control life itself for commercial ends. We feel it with educational ‘standards’ and hierarchical autocratic organisations where dialogue is dissent.
We hear it. We see it. We are told it will achieve ‘results’. Certainty and control, order and hierarchy – and with it the diminution of a stream to a measured irrigation ‘resource’, of a pulsing life-filled landscape to industrial production, of humanity to an unquestioning obedient button-pusher, lever-puller, train-scheduler, sliding inexorably to looking upon humanity as so much fat to render down to soap at this specific price.
It is obvious that we ought to question this mode of narrow ‘knowing’ and decision-making. It would be apparent to any artist, or reader, or thinker, or student of humanities. It should be apparent to us all. Life means more than this. We do not live in a certain and controllable world known through numbers and technology alone. It is unwisdom masquerading as objective truth. It is monochrome presenting itself as the light from a prism. It is totalitarianism trumpeting “freedom and folk”; exploitation wrapped up in the rhetoric of sustainability. It is words like ‘balance’ and ‘efficiency’ and ‘accountability’ and the clichés of power. It is loss and eventual collapse hailed as profit, progress, jobs and GDP. They point us to the promised land, and march us toward Mordor.
It is insanity masquerading in a suit with a breast full of medals. Why on Earth are we seduced by the pomp and pomposity?
Ralston Saul referred to this technocratic obsession as the “dictatorship of reason,” where horrors of the mechanised logistical slaughter on the Somme and Vietnam ‘body counts’ rationalise the pursuit of a mad end. Without a moral rudder, you can rationalise anything. Melville’s Moby Dick was about that. Only their purpose was mad; the deranged pursuit of the white whale for revenge; all by rational means – the technocracy of the harpoon and how to get close enough to thrust it home. The same ill-considered purpose of the rational Dr Frankenstein – let us build a man from body parts – the insanity but technocratically brilliant Dr Strangelove riding his precious bomb.
Technocratic knowing is not wise. Yet there are technocrats who confuse the idea that they can do a thing with the idea that we ought to do it. In Old English, it is the distinction between clever ‘wit’ and the deeper judgment of ‘ken’. D’ya ken, laddie?
The mechanical screech of technocracy holds no mirror reflecting the ways of seeing our world. It presumes to know the only truth. Only art can make us reflect that there is more than one position. Without art, it is easy to slip into the belief in objectivity, in the immutability of our mechanical world, especially when conventions and pride of position supports that myth.
Because objectivity is a myth. The ‘objectivity’ of the totalitarian state or the corporate state is a delusion. There is always a political ecology surrounding our questions, chosen measures, analyses and acts. We ‘frame’ the whole process – usually implicitly. We have this particular worldview, we have these particular power structures and knowledge networks, we ask these particular questions, we choose a method that suits that worldview and that chosen question, and we interpret the answers within that whole political ecology of accepted conventional technocratic thinking.
Conventional thinking. The acceptance of totalitarianism as convention. The machine as metaphor for life. Love as chemical reaction. Reducible to that. This is how it is. This is what we do. To question is dissent. And my reductionism mechanical screech is superior to yours.
Aristotle thought that technology and science were necessary knowledge, but always within a wider knowledge system – directed by the examined life and practical wisdom. Of themselves, science and technology are certainly not equipped to lead the choice of policy and practice. Policy must have a wider sense, transdisciplinarity, an artistic view of life, steeped in humanity and the perspective of place, history and the whole; a moral rudder, the practical ability to judge what is right, and what questions we need to ask of science and technology; whose position is on tap, never on top. Synthesis before analysis; Humanities before Technocracies.
This is the nub of our avoidance of the mechanical screech. A return to questioning of dogma and of open dialogue. A re-enlightenment with the Ethos of deep philosophical inquiry, without the Dogma of the Machine. A rejection of the Modernity of Bacon and Descartes. The encouragement of placing mirrors before us, to reflect our values. A complete rejection of the idea that because one discipline deals in numbers of its own choosing – especially when its worldview is the metaphor of the machine and it embraces the religious hubris of scientism and economic dogma – that is has any right at all to set up our world in their own mechanical image. I confess to irritation when I see any form of supercilious ‘scientism’ or model worshippers expressing disdain for deeper thought.
We don’t have to look to totalitarianism to see the potential corruption of humanity when technocrats take charge, or corporations and economists. The cult of Eugenics was one shared by many others besides the Nazi regime.
We so need art and the philosophies for any re-Enlightenment. Poets write about murdering to dissect, expose the lie Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Goya paints the horror of it all in sketches that cry despair and wrong, that drip blood and scream pain. Turner brings the storm to visceral, horrifying life. Playwrights stir the heart and prize open the cracks so the light can get in.
The real wake up that Arendt gave us is that we are all capable of “the unexamined life.” Without an Ethos of questioning and a base of breadth beyond the quantitative, we can fall so easily into the trap of doing and scheduling because ‘that is what we do’; we perform tasks and measure outputs. We can so easily lose any sense of wider purpose and morality, or any thought of strategy and the deeper questioning of concepts and meanings.
Without either that self-examination or the moral courage to voice, even disobey, we can so easily fall into the role of functionary; easily following orders; another cog in the machine; another brick in the wall. And so we risk ending up playing our small part in scheduling the trains filled with innocents to some horror beyond the horizon whose concern is not ours …. until we reap the whirlwind.
It comes down to whom we choose to trust and hear. The precursors to the mechanical screech are those who seek to dwell secure in their dark narrow hierarchies of self-importance and secrecy. A will to power is a sign: a focus on self and position. Conspicuous consumption with no sense of whakapapa and connection to community and place. Mark them. Avoid them.
Or we can look to those who choose to think, feel, care, express, and live a life worth living; those who are obviously asking what is that life.
Between a double-bass playing (or yes, even a mandolin playing) Bohemian and the ambition and hubris of a smiling business suit, I’ll take the wisdom and perspective of the Bohemian any time.
Or else we risk only having the Suburb of Dissent.
But where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent.