introduction: the machine and its broken dream
October 19, 2021, 10:57 AM
this society is a machine.
it’s an interconnected aggregate of specialized moving parts. it ticks on according to its precepts and mechanisms, and it doesn’t really afford much space for alternative solutions or truly autonomous movements.
well, it’s not really a machine. it’s a collection of institutions and relations populated by a bunch of glorified space monkeys (Χριστέ, ἐλέησον) who really want it to be a shiny engine propelling us towards a prosperous digital star trek utopia.
and the little cog on the little wheel in this arrangement is not really going to freely choose his own future. although he may very well choose to move forward in his prescribed role and feel quite satisfied with his modest part in this bewildering system. whether that’s truly freedom can be debated.
in a way, industrial society simply fashioned itself after the old mechanistic metaphor of the Enlightenment mythology, and in many ways actually succeded at becoming very much like a machine. the instrumental rationality. means without ends.
and this machine is bleeding to death.
the peak oil crowd was always correct in terms of their basic observations. most actual predictions and timelines were off due to the ambiguity of data, but the premise was solid and based in fundamental causal principles.
there isn’t enough energy to go around. there’s definitely not enough to maintain growth, and could never be in a finite system.
what’s worse - in the mid-term, there’s not even enough energy to maintain this level of societal complexity, there are countless other intersecting resource bottlenecks coming into play at the same time, and we’ve accordingly been seeing our institutions fraying at the edges for more than two decades. we can hash out the details of this later, but alice friedemann and gail tverberg probably give you the best overview.
beneath the COVID event
this transformative process which will turn out to be the defining event of our period, is predicated upon the aforementioned issues. there’s not enough fuel to run the machine. there’s not enough stuff to replenish it, so “we” must somehow navigate the scylla and charybdis of mythical space utopianism and the inevitable roll-back of complexity and consumption that is entailed by supply constraints.
whatever else it is, and it is quite a lot of things, the COVID event is the vehicle for instituting the countermeasures that the system perceives (explicitly or not) necessary to stave off a disorderly collapse.
the situation becomes quite clear if one just takes into account a couple of significant factors. assume for the sake of discussion that the energy and resource crisis is real. sounds ominous, but that is a rather prosaic statement, and it’s somewhat difficult to even understand what it actually entails.
it’s akin to describing actual starvation as a “calorie crisis”. if there’s not enough energy to go around for maintaining the system, much less to continue expanding it, there will be a contraction. in terms of the human person, this means death. in terms of complex social structures, or any dissipative system whatsoever, it means simplification and contraction of activity.
the problem from our perspective is that our global industrial economy is only designed to grow. it’s predicated upon growth, and it has no inherent capability to significantly reduce its level of activity and continue to function. it has kicked out the lower rungs in the ladder as it has climbed upwards in countless ways, and there’s very little redundancy in the system. so when we do have a significant bottleneck or long-term contraction, and the three or four factories in the world that produce a key computer chip must halt operations, shit really hits the fan. if basic resources are in short supply, there are often no replacements at the local level.
there are innumerable examples, bottom line is that the system lacks redundancy. it has eliminated the preceding support structures in favour of a more efficient but in principle much more fragile set of global interdependencies.
and facing this kind of situation of energy and resource scarcity, the complex interconnected system that could be described as the “global industrial economy” (yet which has much deeper ideological and institutional roots than such a title would imply) will respond by trying to protect itself.
of course, it’s not an organism, it possesses no actual intelligence, but as a system, it operates upon layers upon layers of rule-goverened behaviours that mimics actual intentions. as nobody actually governs the system as a whole, the outcomes of these behaviours emerge from the immensely complex interactions at lower levels, so when the system responds, it does so as an effect that’s almost impossible to foresee from the actions of any single accountant, mid-level manager or local legislator.
that’s not to say that there exist no actual interest groups and human agents that exert considerable influence upon societal processes, it’s just that their actions are generally also subsumed under the system’s machine teleology as such. there’s little actual autonomy even here, particularly when e.g. capital acts collectively in accordance with class interests &c.
so you’ve built this huge apparatus that grows unsustainably and now can’t be maintained for much longer due to the black swan of resource depletion. then the system perceives a crisis and defends itself by some form of adaptation.
this is, essentially, the function of the COVID event, if not necessarily its origin, in accordance with the pattern of classical disaster capitalism.
for what’s the main, bare-bones issue with depletion? it’s excessive consumption, however you frame it. and if you want to maintain the integrity of the system in a situation of scarcity, you must control consumption and transform the relations of production.
this can be done relatively rapidly in a variety of ways. you can cull the population, brute force new patterns of resource use, or implement invasive surveillance over every transaction and purchase so as to incentivize desired behaviours. you can covertly push through the greatest wealth transfer and property reform throughout history by effectively capitalizing on global “lockdowns” and the strategic disruption of supply and production chains. a controlled demolition of the economy, creative destruction to maintain property relations and class privileges.
or you can of course do everything at once.
you see, the end goal of the system, of this infernal machine dmitry orlov aptly calls “the technosphere” is not necessarily quantitative growth, incessantly adding more “useless eaters” within the framework of expanding industrial production. it does indeed desire to grow, but this can at least in principle take place qualitatively within the framework of the digital “metaverse”, where a significantly smaller, select class of content creators can slave away at expanding abstract value whjle maintaining a strictly spartan level of consumption that doesn’t increase with the constant addition of value. that’s the pipe dream at least, and probably also that this arrangement can keep functioning indefinitely until we’ve solved the problem of accessing resources on other planets. digital escape velocity. singularities. scientistic salvation.
in effect, they can solve this whole conundrum by simply shrinking and strengthening the machine while keeping all of us caged within it, so that some form of growth or value-expansion can be kept alive. so that the system as such can be maintained.
there can be no other end goal. it’s either this or bust.
the roots of this entire endeavour, and the means by which this technosphere reproduces, expands and turns us into parts of itself goes much deeper than one may think. it has vast philosophical, aesthetic, theological and spiritual dimensions aside from the obvious sociological and economic ones (always predicated upon basic physics) and hopefully, we shall be able to explore some aspects and themes of this in the weeks and months and maybe even years ahead.
but time is short.