Frank Furedi's bum (was: help sustainable development)

Paul Flewers hatchet.job at
Sun Jun 11 06:23:45 MDT 2000

The problem with this debate on sustainable development, etc, is that on the one
side we have some sort of belief in an undifferentiated idea of progress, a
one-sided view that technology is ipso facto an unproblematic thing; on the
other there is an almost technophobic idea, that technological innovations can
only lead to tears, particularly in under-developed countries. Both are
throwbacks to ideas expressed in Victorian times -- just see what British
Victorian engineers said about how humanity could be liberated through the use
of machinary, and how others opposed mechanisation.   The issues are far less
black-and-white than either side say either now or 150 years ago. I think that
the real problem is the application of science and technology -- how technical
innovations can be introduced and used for the benefit of the mass of the
population. The liberation of humanity requires technological advance, but it
needs a lot more than that. There's nothing implicitly wrong with building a dam
in the Indian countryside, or running a pipeline from Chad to the seaside, or
developing agriculture or industries in Brazil; there is a genuine problem if
they cause problems for the population either in the immediate vicinity or
elsewhere, or if they cause serious environmental problems, or raise serious
geopolitical problems. Similarly, I don't have any problem in principle with
genetic modification or nuclear power; but I'm not happy about the ability of
today's implementers and managers -- be they private companies, governments or
state administrators in today's world -- to use them safely or use them in the
interests of the masses.   The crucial question is control -- who is in charge
of technological change and implementation; in whose interests are they being
introduced? We need informed discussion and debate so that decisions can be made sensibly.
We need to eschew both the panic-mongering anti-technological approach and the
uncritical 'progress' approach, and see how socialists can intervene in the
debate in a way that can show how technological change can be beneficial to the
mass of the population.   In the meantime, here's an article by Trotsky from
1901 on technology and progress that may be of interest to list members.   Paul
F   ++++++++++++++++++++++++     Leon Trotsky   Poetry, the Machine, and the
Poetry of the Machine   Let us try, the late Ruskin proposed to his compatriots,
to leave at least one corner of our country beautiful, serene and wealthy. We
will have neither earthworks nor railways, we will have no witless and senseless
objects... When we need to go somewhere, we will go in tranquillity and safety,
without risking our lives travelling at 60 miles per hour; when we need to
transport something, we will carry it on our backs, or put it on the backs of
our animals, or take it in carriages and boats.   England remained deaf to
Ruskins romantic appeals. Is this to be regretted?   We think not!   Do
earthworks and railways really destroy beauty, tranquillity and wealth? Do
witless and senseless objects (machines) really represent an evil we need to be
saved from?   The answer to these questions can only be a resounding no.  
Putting to one side the social roots of Ruskins reactionary romantic delusions,
we can see that they are based on a colossal methodological misunderstanding:
Ruskin drew no distinction between the technical and the social significance of
the machine.   We are not about to deny the dark aspects of the machines rôle in
society. Under modern conditions, they are a hammer in the hands of the blind
machinery of bourgeois exploitation, which uses this mighty hammer to smash
human skulls, spines, ribs and muscles. Yet a hammer is still only a hammer: it
may be used to smash a skull, but it may also be used to forge knives to cut
birthday cakes at family gatherings...   If we place (today mentally, but
tomorrow in practice) the same witless and senseless machine that provokes
thousands of curses in harmonious social conditions, then its truly liberating,
socio-technological mission will appear before us in all its grandeur.   We can
and must rise up against the modern uses to which the machine is put, but to
rise up with Ruskin against the machine an und für sich [per se] is one of the
worst types of reaction.   Nevertheless, is the machine not a witless and
senseless object, and therefore does not any horse or, even, donkey, renowned
for its Homeric stupidity, possess undoubted advantages over it?   In fact, we
value the horse and the donkey precisely to the extent that they have no will of
their own, and uncomplainingly submit to ours. The donkey, which manifests its
will and its meaning in short, its asinine individuality in fits of classic
stubbornness, does not, rightly, receive any encouragement from its driver, who
beats the will out of it with a whip.   If this is the case, we should take the
argument to its logical conclusion: try to conjure up a picture of the ideal
horse (that is to say, one without restiveness and other equine traits) or the
ideal donkey (one not infected with the spirit of contrariness), and you will
get... a locomotive. In that case, what right do we have to raise our donkeys
hooves threateningly against the locomotive?   Whenever intelligent living
strength is contrasted with the dead machine, we cannot help but be reminded of
the deadly ironic words of one of Russias most intelligent men, NA Dobrolyubov
in Slavyanskiye dumy [Slavonic Meditations]:   Swiftly goes the steamer, yet it
is a dead machine that drives it, A wooden barge makes slower progress, yet it
is towed by an intelligent being.   Aha! Nine times out of ten, protests against
the dead machine are the other side of the coin of spiritual mourning over the
obsolescent intelligent being of a pre-industrial idyll...   But perhaps Ruskin
is right in stating that travelling on a real horse at the very least possesses
the advantage of safety over the furious gallop of that embodiment of the
abstract equine idea, the locomotive?   Alas! In spite of the fact that the
speed of 60 miles per hour Ruskin talks about has been almost doubled by the
best modern expresses, there is only one death (in England and France) per 45
million passengers; more accidents happen, of course, to pedestrians, and it is
therefore more "dangerous" to walk than to travel by train at least, by English
or French trains (Russkiye Vyedomosti [Russian Gazette] no 132, Iz khroniki
otkrytii i izobretyenii [From the Chronicle of Discoveries and Inventions]).  
Another widely credited notion is the idea that the all-pervasive machine sounds
the death knell of poetic creation.   For Ruskin, every object retains its
poetic charm until we conceive of it as self-sufficient. As soon as we begin to
see it as subject to an alien goal which is always the case with a machine it
loses its aesthetic charm for us. Once we learn that the leaves on a tree are
programmed to absorb carbonic acid and excrete oxygen, we become indifferent to
them, seeing them as merely some sort of gasometer: they no longer seem to us to
be an artless and beautiful gift of nature, but merely a crude and prosaic
machine. Is this convincing? Not in the least!   To tear away the mystic veil,
woven from unscientific thought, from some sphere of phenomena and to illuminate
these phenomena with the light of scientific realist analysis does this mean to
destroy their poetic charm?   No! Whoever is incapable of supporting the French
artist who raised a glass to the disgrace of Newton because that genius had
supposedly destroyed the charm of the solar spectrum, through explaining the
secret of the magical colour spectrum by breaking down the colourless sunbeam,
whoever does not share such a crude mystical point of view will never be imbued
with Ruskins mood as manifested in the above reasoning.   In essence, mysticism
still nests in our brain cells, and our souls religiously preserve the spiritual
heritage of our remote ancestors who made sacrifices at a stump in the Taiga...
Indeed, something precious is torn from our hearts when scientific thought,
devoid of all sham sentimentality, expels some spirit from its sanctuary and
subjects that sanctuary to the full force of physical and chemical laws.   The
machine deals a body-blow to this sort of mind-set: through its combination of
levers and inclined planes it achieves results whose causes were before shrouded
in alluring mystery. It is accused of destroying aesthetics. In fact, it
destroys only aesthetic mysticism. We are deeply convinced that the machine, as
the symbol and embodiment of the tireless struggle of the human genius to free
itself from nature, should become an object of sublime realist, naturally, not
mystical inspiration!   Take your watch out of your pocket, open up the outer
cover and peer at the two hands, whose rhythmic movement, imperceptible to the
naked eye, subordinates infinite and elusive time to your consciousness; look at
the small second hand, which hurriedly yet measuredly runs through its miniature
cycle by finely tuned degrees, constantly breaking up time and turning it into
chronological dust.   Turn the watch over and open up the back cover. Look
closely at the simple, elegant, noble mechanism, which carries out its task with
such accuracy that we use it to check the workings of our heart and lungs.   Can
this familiar object really not inspire poetic creation? Is it not the magical
crystal of human genius? Is this small machine not associated with the most
poetic memories of our lives? Have you not waited in tense anticipation for the
moment when the hands reach the figure XII, to proclaim the birth of a new year
or a new century? Has your heart not skipped a beat as you watch the hands
approaching the time arranged by the woman you love for a rendezvous? . .   But
let us return to the comparison of the horse with the locomotive.   You will
remember, of course, that oppressive-looking embodiment of genuine, authentic,
machineless labour, striking in its aesthetic power, in the shape of the
work-horse.   Put one of these emaciated, downtrodden muzhik beasts, with its
protruding belly and loose-hanging flanks, digging its weakened hind legs into
the crumbling soil of a mountain up which it must drag a 25 pud weight,
alongside a locomotive, as powerful as the human will, as audacious and light as
hope (Guiot), that steel incarnation of indefatigable technical thought, that 10 000
pud gleaming gigantic monster gliding smoothly on its metal rails, devouring
space with the elegant, measured play of its steel muscles, effortlessly
carrying along behind it half a million puds of freight; put them side by side
and answer the question: which of them has poetry on its side?   No, mankind
will not give up the machine thousands of years of history testify to that fact.
  Ever since man first walked upright and armed himself with his first weapon,
the stick, his whole life has been a protest against the power of nature. In
order to elevate himself above it, vanquish it, and win his freedom, man has
saddled man, and, whipping his flanks, has driven him ever forwards, down
through the ages.   The whole colossal legacy of practical, theoretical and
poetic thought that we possess, and of which we are so justly proud, carries the
indelible stamp of the power of man over man in the name of liberation from
nature. The whole force of theoretical rebuttal, practical struggle and poetic
imprecations that is directed against modern forms of social oppression has
sprung from the same source the power of man over man in the name of
emancipation from earthly powers.   The task before us now is to liberate man
from man, not to subject him once again to the uncontrolled power of nature.  
Lifted up by an infinite series of human waves to the heights of modern social
questions and ideals, man, the proud and recalcitrant son of nature, having
tasted the satanic dream of subordinating nature to the power of his brain and
dragging it along behind him, will not give up the machine, for he can only
ascend to the mountain kingdom of freedom on a mighty locomotive, not on a
winded, emaciated work-horse.   PS: The Siberian papers have recently run a
series of reports on the peasants superstitiously hostile attitude to
butter-making machines, emphasising the peasants stupid prejudices against this
useful machine, and explaining that these prejudices spring from their
ignorance. But why, then, has this ignorance (which can hardly be disputed) not
led to a cult of adoration of the butter-making machine? Because this machine,
as well as its undoubtedly useful technical features, obvious to all, conceals a
sort of mysterious social power: as a technical category, the separator
separates the butter from the cream; as a social category, the same separator
insidiously separates the cream from the hungry mouths of peasant children, and
the enterprises profit from labour. It is this second function of the metallic
enemy that the peasants frightened imagination associates with a black book from
another land, and other devilry.   Vostochnoye Obozreniye, no 197, 8 September

More information about the Marxism mailing list