Mumford’s Megamachine and the Disposable Human

Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine” is quite real in one sense (and quite unreal in another) — a semi-autonomous system that strives towards its ideal of full autonomous functioning, and, with the tech-revolution and artificial intelligence, is on the cusp of realising itself as such. It has no lack of “handmaidens” (Varoufakis’s phrase in The Global Minotaur) or “courtiers” (Chomsky’s description) to help it realise itself as such either.

The Megamachine has a long developmental history, and we could easily trace its maturation following Mumford’s four stages of realisation or maturation of an idea — from Formulation, through Incarnation, through Incorporation, to its mature phase “Embodiment“. But to the Megamachine (and its handmaidens) living beings are simply an irrelevancy, and human beings are as disposable and dispensible as BIC pens are And if you read contemporary economics schemes it’s as though human beings are not just irrelevant to the purposes of “economy”, but are practically considered inconvenient parasites on the body and the functioning of the perfect machine.

This is quite true. That’s why the renegade economist, E.F. Schumacher, subtitled his famous book Small is Beautiful, “Economics as If People Mattered”. Most people it seems still do not understand or realise that the Megamachine simply has no use for them, in more senses than employment.

It is part of the “deficiency” of the mental-rational consciousness structure (as described by Jean Gebser) that the human isn’t even central anymore to mainstream or orthodox economic models and economic thinking. We’ve entered the age of the Disposable Human. Most people seem to think that it has to do with politics and political decisions (or conspiracies), but that fact is that the politicians have thrown in the towel on this. It’s why we can’t distinguish any more between neo-liberal, neo-conservative, or neo-socialist (or what we call “post-ideology”). And in one sense Maggie Thatcher was right to declare “there is no alternative” and, especially, “there is no such thing as society”. Society had already been replaced by the Megamachine. Most people also confuse “society” with the Megamachine, but the fact is society has become just as irrelevant and just as disposable to the Megamachine as the human being.

We can actually use Mumford’s four stages to trace the birth and development of the Megamachine.

Formulation: it’s origination as the indifferent “Clockwork Universe”
Incarnation: it’s reflection in the human mind as the Mechanical Philosophy and as the form of “Universal Reason” (Blake’s “Urizen”)
Incorporation: it’s historical materialisation through the various scientific, industrial, and political revolutions of the Modern Age.
Embodiment: “end of history”, the realised objective form of the Megamachine, not only as Nietzsche’s “death of God”, but finalised by Thatcher and Fukuyama.

The Embodiment represents the “event horizon”, in effect, when the Megamachine became objectively real. I’m not sure when we should date this precisely (possibly with the First World War). Siegfried Gideon’s Mechanization Takes Command was written in 1948. It was preceded by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management (1909) which already sought to adjust human life to the tempo and rhythm machine (“Taylorism”). But it was already visible to William Blake in the early 19th century as “the dark Satanic Mill”, even though then the Megamachine was still in its formative or “incarnation” phase.

Regardless, it’s the post-war decades when consciousness of the growing autonomy of the Megamachine begins to dawn on some minds. We find a lot of critical writing about this in the late 50s, the discomfort with “the System” in the 60s, but in the 70s we find the first use of the term “post-modern” and initial reflections on “the Anthropocene” and, of course, Thatcherism’s “closure” implied by her TINA principle and the end of society. Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1990) is also connected with the Embodiment of the Megamachine, and her book is coincident also with the publication of Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, too, and his belief that what Mumford condemned as “Megamachine” was, “the final form of society”.

Although the Megamachine has been described by Theodore Roszak and Lewis Mumford as “Anti-Life”, it’s probably more correct to say it is completely indifferent to life. It’s purpose is pure efficiency (and so Janice Gross Stein’s The Cult of Efficiency also deals with another aspect of the Megamachine). Likewise all diagnoses of the problems of “mass society” are quite irrelevant until they take into account the fact that “mass society” was created by the Megamachine.

It’s also peculiar that the early modern period witnessed the first attempts at creating robots or automatons. Leonardo da Vinci attempted one. Descartes speculated on automatons. A “Chess” automaton was attempted. Quite a number of mechanical beings were attempted — the first robots. Crane Brinton’s succinct definition of modernity as “the invention of a system for creating systems” is precise in terms of the first “system” being the clockwork, and the interpretation of its meaning as identical with the structure of the universe. This lies at the heart of the Mechanical Philosophy.

The Technocrat — the Apparatchik — is a peculiar historical type. It was not so much the Technocrat or Apparatchik that created the Megamachine as the Megamachine that nurtured the Technocrat or Apparatchik. Today’s authoritarian populist revolt against “experts” or “globalism” completely misses the target it presumes to aim at. It simply wants the Megamachine to work more effectively in distributing the goods, but it’s “common sense” is completely assimilated to the Megamachine and the Clockwork Universe. The Megamachine is, of course, Blake’s mad Zoa Urizen. The “dark Satanic Mill” is in fact Urizen’s mind, and in him we live, move, and have our being as the Megamachine.

What is the future of Urizen/Megamachine? Some anticipate its breakdown and collapse either as a result of “peak oil” or climate change or its own overreach (example being David Ehrenfeld’s essay “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“). Even some of the Megamachine’s enablers and “handmaidens” have begun expressing doubts about what they are doing — particularly around artificial intelligence precisely because the logic of the Megamachine finds human beings as disposable as any other disposable commodity.

“In the Megamachine we trust” is pretty much the motto of the climate change deniers and true believers in the “Invisible Hand”. They’ve surrendered all sense of personal responsibility for society to the functioning of the Megamachine. This is, today, what they call “freedom”.

Others call that not freedom but slavery. Durkheim’s Anomie, Max Weber’s “Iron Cage”, Karl Marx’s “Alienation” were each groping in their way to describe the social and spiritual pathology of the Megamachine. Mumford, of course, (as well as Jacques Ellul) in his many writings tried to describe and catalogue the many pathologies of the Megamachine, including (and perhaps foremost) its destruction of the conditions for life. It’s a concern we find also in Jean Gebser’s description of the “deficient mode” of the mental-rational consciousness structure.

What is the future of the Megamachine? Is it already disintegrating, or is it assimilating and consolidating? There is evidence for both prospects. Many observers — Jean Gebser, Peter Pogany, David Ehrenfeld, Jane Jacobs, Wolfgang Streeck, Yanis Varoufakis amongst them — argue that the Megamachine is disintegrating. Others, particularly those involved in the “tech-revolution” and artificial intelligence — hold just the opposite, that the Megamachine is consolidating into a “techno-utopia” of wonder machines (Rolf Jensen’s The Dream Society, perhaps Howard Bloom’s The Global Brain, among them).

What some are calling a Twilight and a new “Dark Age” others call a “Dawn” (twilight and dawn can resemble one another). How do we decide? Algist Mikunas dismissed the prophets of the Megamachine as “technocratic shamans”. It’s understandable that people might be perplexed — caught betwixt and between — the prophets of Doom and Apocalypse and the Prophets of a New Dawn.

Which is it to be?








9 responses to “Mumford’s Megamachine and the Disposable Human”

  1. davidm58 says :

    It looks like Mumford’s “Megamachine” could be fairly well correlated with Peter Pogany’s concept of the rise of the first Global System in conjunction with the rise of capitalism, and then more completely with the transition (through 2 world wars and the great depression) into the present Global System 2.0. The main feature of these Global Systems is that once the system comes into being, like any system, it’s prime directive is to protect and sustain itself, and not to protect and sustain human beings. And so as the situation continues to decline we move from the Schumacher concept of “Economics as if People Mattered,” to John Michael Greer’s “Economics as if Survival Mattered.”

    Even conservative commentator used the term “apocalypse” in last week’s PBS Newshour Shields and Brooks discussion.

    Pogany, like Gebser, envisioned a strong possibility of a new dawn after a transition of “Havoc” in the 21st century. Michael Dowd is similarly an “apocaloptimist” (short term pessimist/long term optimist). Does Mumford foresee a similar possibility of a long term positive outcome after the Megamachine implodes?

    • Scott Preston says :

      I’m not sure yet if Mumford foresaw any end-stage failure for the Megamachine, apart from whimsical speculations about a “disintegration”. Back when Mumford was writing, the Megamachine was beginning to look pretty invincible, I suppose, a lot less fragile than it now appears. Mikemackd has posted a couple of quotes from Mumford that suggest he might have anticipated its “implosion”, but apart via nuclear holocaust I’m not sure how he thought that might come about.

      Of course, the Megamachine has weathered crises before, and has come roaring back stronger than ever. It’s definitely relying on the “tech-revolution” in artificial intelligence to lift it out of its present doldrums. But, for various reasons, Wolfgang Streeck and Yanis Varoufakis (and, of course, Pogany) don’t think it can swing it this time.

      I haven’t yet finished Mumford’s Transformations of Man yet, so I can’t say what possible prospects or scenarios he gives for the Megamachine/Colossus.

      I think it’s pretty clear, though, that it has reached a turning point of some kind, where it will either disintegrate or consolidate itself further, and that’s pretty much what’s behind mass surveillance along with artificial intelligence schemes — likewise new sources of energy. Whether it can weather its “ecological footprint” problem, or “peak oil” or “climate change” and such matters, or generally continue to ignore and transgress “limits” of all kinds — big IF. The arts of prediction have become rather hazardous these days.

    • Scott Preston says :

      A really titchy question is whether the Megamachine can replace the biosphere (or the organic realm) with itself, which seems to be its logic and the logic of The Anthropocene. We’re tempted to say “that’s impossible!” but it has already gone quite a long ways towards doing just that.

      • Steve Lavendusky says :

        Many wild animals live longer in a captive setting. While there are some exceptions (such as elephants), most animals provided with shelter, a constant supply of food and nutritional supplements, and protection from the wild interactions that might wound, maim, or kill them experience increases in longevity. And despite the greater life expectancy and longer lifespan, most people understand that wild animals held in a zoo setting do not live the lives they were biologically intended to. For example, a lion living in a relatively small enclosed area that is fed beef and poultry on a regular schedule is not experiencing what it means to be a lion. In other words, while it is still a lion, some of its “lion-ness” has been taken away from it by its captors. Almost everyone would agree that in spite of the easier life, a healthy lion would prefer to be in the wild, even though this involves living with risk and uncertainty. Wild lions experience many adversities, including hunger due to failed hunts, injuries from hooves and horns during chases, and sometimes fierce battles against other lions. Through these hardships—perhaps only because of the hardships—the animal fully lives the life of a lion only when in the wild.

        But, for some reason, humans are seen differently. The greater life expectancy and increased longevity experienced in the modern world is used as rationale for why this version of living is better than that experienced by any previous people (especially wild humans). No matter what freedoms are taken away from us and how much we are forced to work for others, we live longer and that makes everything acceptable. We spend much more time laboring than indigenous people, often performing jobs that are deprived of fulfillment, ultimately experiencing a form of captivity that is without fences. Worse, our education makes it impossible for us to be wild because we have both forgotten how to live outside of our human zoos and have been convinced that being wild is a step backward. The chronic disease and frequent depression indicates very clearly we are not living as humans were biologically intended to. Could it be that we are unwilling to see that we are no longer fully human, that some of our “human-ness” has been taken away from us. Perhaps we traded a significant part of our sovereignty for longer life, the same longer life that many zoo animals experience.

        Arthur Haines

        • Scott Preston says :

          Quite a few people are kept alive against their will. for their part, they aren’t living longer, but dying longer. Medical intervention is just prolonging their dying, not their living. Certain irony in that.

          I don’t know if ceasing that would skew the life-expectancy statistics. Anyway, it would still probably be better than the Roman Empire’s, which was, reputedly, about 45 years. That includes, I assume, warfare casualties.

          Do contemporary life-expectancy figures include death by warfare and by other means? car and industrial accidents, suicides, overdoses, executions, etc? I sometimes wonder.

          So, contra Hobbes, while life in nature might be nasty, brutish and short, it seems that life in Empire is too, and is maybe even shorter, if the Roman figures are anything to go by.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Thank you Scott for all these thoughts and their references and appreciate your ability to weave them together.. You keep me under the spell of these four cycles including the four seasons of the year, then the upward and down ward movements pops up in my mind together with the in-between the four directions and the in-between of all other double and the seven eyes of Blake that is the seven stages for human spiritual advancement that are based on the seven states of Bruno also the seven names I mentioned previously,also the seven states of matter and the seven shades of color and the seven heavens and the attached seven musical tones etc etc . All these and more push me to ask where is the place of birth and death or reward and punishment in the operation of this fourfold mechanism or to put it differently what is the purpose of all this, the story of birth and death and the in-between journey of up or down then the biological cycles which run out side the direct attention of human awareness and the spiritual cycles which influence the biological cycles to large extent and the spiritual cycled as the main purpose of human life on this earth. Then also the individual cycles and the collective cycles and why the individual cycles is the main cycles that require our attendance since the collective is outside the human control save the individual contribution negatively or positively, Then do death end all. The criminal and the good ,the oppressed and oppressors are equated. What an imperfect universe and what a waste to all this accumulated knowledge. Then the oneness of consciousness which expresses itself in all different fields. I do not think there is a magic consciousness but one consciousness that reveals itself in a magical zone so also in the other zones. That is to say that the consciousness that addresses humanities is the same that addresses philosophy or science or etc. So what is the use of all this information if it does not help me to understand myself and be of use for myself and others. Reading in his presence helps me from straying , reading otherwise do nothing but increase my confusion and anxiety. I reached I stage where I do want to share my reading in the divine confines that is the old mythical knowledge with those who have done their reading outside that confines in order to exchange notes that may help to move toward safe shores because the time is ripe for both movements and to follow, like Whitehead, what is important and vital for this living universe which is whispering it alarms against the blunders of the blindness of the perverted majority of our humanity. I like to end by quoting the opening verse of chapter 29 of the quran which reads, Aleef laam meem, do people think that we are going to leave them to say that they have faith without testing them and we have already have tested those who have passed before them, in order for god to know who are truthful and who are liars. As for the Aleef laam meen ,I have in previous post said that this is the alphabetical rhythmical formation that human uses in his meditation in order to draw the divine knowing exactly like those that have honestly retreated in their laboratory to find some opening in the field of their expertise, the only difference is that the first group is intending to use the knowledge gained to serve the divine truth without neglecting their share in this passing life. Sufis say real freedom if to worship god only with on other associates. God generosity in both realms of knowledge or sustenance is open to all believers or disbelievers. Thank you Scott again.

  3. mikemackd says :

    Duane McClarridge, former CIA Latin American Chief, speaks eloquently for many of those at the controls of the megamachine in his interview with John Pilger’s at

    Although I am dubious whether he would accept your term “handmaiden”, Scott, I consider that Duane speaks for all handmaidens of the megamachine there. That is, they exist in every country: they are just more evident in the USA because it is so powerful. In fact, the impulses are in us all. Some can resist the call, as Jesus did when Satan offered him the power over all the kingdoms of the world if the Son of Man would only worship him: a direst reversal of God’s command to Lucifer, as he then was, to worship man.
    Others, not so much.

    As I posted ages ago in your Mumford called them organization men, because in his day they were mainly men. I have mentioned organization man in several posts, firstly at your “Idolatry and Self” string; the most extensive reference, however, was a long quote from The Pentagon of Power on your”A Different Interpretation of ‘Post-Truth Society’ “ string.

    As they say in business, ‘if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu”.
    What could possibly go wrong?

    While McClarridge uses the magic incantation “national security” in that interview with Pilger, and does so as a magic incantation, he does not resort to the MOAB-term “national survival”, as I quoted by Mumford a few strings ago.

    From my readings of Mumford, his problem can be seen as boiling down to scale. Notice how McClarridge argues not about killings, but the number of them, as if only a few would make it O.K. But nation-states are artefacts, like plumbing or cars, and like sports teams they may get particularly identified with by people whose drives for omnipotence are frustrated at other scales and in other domains. Those who justify their killings for national security are like those blaming the gun for killing someone when they pulled the trigger.

    Currently, I interpret Mumford as not looking to the destruction of the megamachine, but it becoming the implementing means of McGilchrist’s Master rather than McGilchrist’s Emissary. Hence his lifetime interest in regional and city planning: he was trying to figure out how humanitas could be applied at all scales: not only that of the 150 people or so we have been biologically limited to apply it to, but also those to whom McClarridge and his ilk from all “sides” of conflicts apply their versions of Yeats’ “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”.

    That pitiless gaze of the Cult of Anti-Life is directed to the “other”. To repeat my quote from Mumford in the Clockwork Universe string, “in this world of inverted values, evil becomes the supreme good, and the capacity to make moral discriminations and personal choices, to inhibit destructive or murderous impulses, to pursue distant ends for humane purposes, becomes an offense against the rehabilitated god of lawlessness and disorder, anciently called Satan, or The Destroyer: the God of Anti-life”.

    “Anciently called Satan”. Lucifer, the light-bringer of McGilchrist’s favourite poet, Milton, became Satan by being too proud to acknowledge his Master: humanitas, agape, Whitman’s vast elemental sympathy, divine action. To necessarily greatly oversimplify, the Master works towards Mumford’s unity by universal inclusion, and the Emissary assuming itself to be the Master towards Mumford’s unity by suppression of all considered other, as displayed by McClarridge in that interview. Which is not to judge him as being “nothing but” that: nothing is nothing but, because things are enfolded in processes and dynamic relationships. I have neither that right, nor even that opinion of McClarridge: I do not know him at all, let alone well enough to make that call. But in that interview I think he nails what Mumford meant.

    Again, myths never were but always are: call him what you will; what was anciently called Satan is with us still, including at the controls of the megamachine, because as Carl Jung put it, “where love rules, there is no will to power; where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other”. Hence Mumford’s passionate call for love at all scales, particularly that of the megamachine.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    Not particularly on topic here, but I noted yet another streetfight in Berkley between pro-Trump and anti-Trump brigades. The situation is getting pretty reminiscent of the German Weimar Republic, and the constant streetfighting between fascist and anti-fascist groups for control of the streets.

    Yeah.. that’s the aim of it. Behind the pretext of cover of “free speech” is the aim to own the streets. Win the streets, win the country. Simple formula. So, it’s pretty much a turf war. The fascists, too, insisted on their liberal rights (free speech, free association and assembly, etc) but for only as long as it took them to win and control the streets. Then they had no use for liberal rights after that.

    So, as far as the “antifa scum” are concerned, they’re the resisters, not the aggressors. There might be some truth in that since it looks like the pro-Trump brigade came to provoke a fight. They were pretty well armoured and, of course, the symbolism of Martin Luther King Jr. Park seems pretty provocative.

    Once the situation decayed in Weimar into streetfighting, there should have been nothing more to do but join the fight. The Socialists got cold feet, though (something that aggrieved Rosenstock-Huessy despite his conservative preferences) and they lost the streets. Game over.

    The “empathy tent” (or “dialogue tent”) in the scenario is somewhat out of place here (although functional as a medical station). When the point is to win and own the street, dialogue isn’t on anybody’s mind.

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