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 Society had already been replaced by the Megamachine.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?