The Pathologies of the Megamachine

The megamachine is not to be understood as a technical engineering-like apparatus. Instead, the megamachine means a form of social, political, and above all economic organization that functions like a gigantic machine. Much like a real machine, the megamachine too, needs power to feed the apparatus of the megamachine.

The megamachine’s physical power often comes in the form of violence. This includes fear, humiliation, pain, physical injury, and, of course, death. From the beginning of the megamachine, those who dominate have often brought death to those they dominate through conquest, colonialism, imperialism, and the like.

The second way in which the megamachine operates is through the fear of economic hardship, social degradation, poverty, as well as a well-orchestrated terror – and the actual – loss of one’s livelihood. Those in power have always turned this around by exploiting a desire for social advancement to turn the megamachine’s underlings into willing tools.

The third power of the megamachine is the creation of obedience to the megamachine. It is based on the ideology that there is a necessity to obey the command of those who rule. This is the megamachine’s ideological power.

The megamachine has a long history. Perhaps, the first forms of a looming megamachine started when the people of early Middle Eastern villages began to domesticate animals and plants. This worked both ways. The urban institutions of Uruk – the ancient city of Sumer that later became Babylonia – slowly but surely also domesticated people. Not much later, this set the civilization’s dirty little secret in motion: the systematic introduction of slavery.

It is telling that before all that, two things were missing from the prehistoric evidence of human beings. One is the near total absence of representation of a dominant superhuman that was later called God, Allah, etc. The second thing missing from prehistoric depictions is organized violence in the form of what we call war – something that was set to become essential for the megamachine.

But soon, a pyramid-shaped system-based hierarchy, command, obedience, and the top-down exercise of power started to become established. Today, many have internalized. The pyramid metaphor signifying the modern corporation is accepted as a given. From the Egyptian pyramids to today’s corporations, the megamachine rules.

In-between both, bronze and later iron mining and thereafter coal, oil, and gas – which remain by far the most environmentally destructive economic sector on earth became the prime symbol of man’s (yes: men!) power over nature. Today, five out of the world’s ten largest corporations are involved in mining. Mining is euphemistically labeled resource extraction by the PR apostles of Managerialism.

Financing the megamachine’s mining operations are bankers. They often operate just as the former Goldman Sachs’ boss once said, “I’m just a banker doing God’s work.” Together with the self-convinced hallucination of doing God’s work, the ideologues of megamachine suggest that markets are a force of nature rewarding the brave and efficient while on the other hand, punishing the weak and slow.

To work for the megamachine, these markets require a wealth of integrated legal regulations camouflaged by the ideology of neoliberalism as deregulation (read: pro-business regulation). Take just two legal regulations – the legal tender of money and megamachine’s copyright laws – away and megamachine will collapse by the end of next week.

The megamachine’s demand for money dates back to the Kingdom of Lydia, where the first coins were minted with the oldest Lydian coin worth twelve sheep – exactly the annual wage of a mercenary.

This testifies to the megamachine’s first source of power: the violence metered out by mercenaries forming the first companies as con pane: bread sharing hired killers. These mercenaries were hired on a human labor market. Rather unsurprisingly, three commodities – silver, slavery, and war – formed the core of the first market economy. In other words, neoliberalism’s much-acclaimed free marketis soaked in human blood.

Of course, as marketable resources – including the predecessors of today’s human resources: slaves – became scarce, worldwide conflicts over access to those increased. Today, the class feeding the megamachine seals itself off in gated communities with walls, barbed wire fences and massive security forces to keep people out seeking refuge from their plundered homelands and the environmentally destroyed regions in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. And, we call this modernity.

Yet, the transition to modernity was marked by several monstrosities. The discovery of America culminated in millions dead during the mass genocide of America’s indigenous peoples. It was followed by the massacres of the Thirty Years’ War which wiped out roughly a third of Europe’s population.

These events are prime examples of the megamachine’s three key drivers: greed for money and profits; unimaginable violence; and accompanying ideology (religion) to camouflage the quest for profits accompanied by mass extermination.

With the discovery of the Americas and the subsequent exploitation of South America’s silver mines, things change somewhat for the megamachine. For a long time, a rather unassuming valley named Jáchymov – located in Bohemia – was the location of Europe’s largest silver mines. It produced silver that was minted into money. This money was known as Joachims-Thaler, the predecessor of today’s dollar.

All this shrank with Spain’s exploitation of the Americas. Columbus (who thought to be in India) had noted in his logbook, “with 50 men, we could overpower the lot and do with them as we please.” To finance a second trip, he promised the Spanish crown and his Italian creditors, “as much gold and as many slaves as you like.”

This put him and his crew under considerable pressure to keep this promise at all costs and to generate a return on the capital investment. The second journey marked the beginning of what was probably the greatest genocide humanity was set to experience.

Once in the Americas, the Spanish exterminated half of Haiti’s 250,000 people. But that was only the beginning. Since there was so little gold to be collected on Haiti, the Spaniards decided to put locals to work on plantations as slaves – virtually all of them died. In 1515, there were still 50,000 Haitians left; and, in 1550, only 500 remained. From Mexico to Peru, it was the same story wherever the Spaniards went. Eventually, a total of 40,000 tons of pure silver had been extracted and shipped to Spain feeding the megamachine.

Continuing on from that came the newest invention of the megamachine. It was a corporation in the form of the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie. The VOC was the first modern joint-stock corporation. It was followed by the British East Indian Company which had its own army.

When the Indonesian Banda Islands were unwilling to grant a trading monopoly to the VOC in 1621, a company of several thousand mercenaries committed a massacre on the islands. After that, only 1,000 of the original 15,000 islanders were left alive. It marked the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands and one of the darkest ages in Indonesian history.

With all of that, the European megamachine had transformed half of the world into a hell on earth in the name of salvation and progress. To flank colonialism and imperialism, the megamachine needed the modern state often built for the army and its finance (a military budget).

Over the next centuries, organization of the military became a model for many institutions: prisons, workhouses, factories, management, sports, business school, and of course, primary and high schools. The concluding stage of all this had been reached when people internalize the megamachine’s command system to such an extent that they believe they follow their own choices. In reality, of course, they are just fulfilling the demands of the system.

Despite persistent criticisms, the megamachine’s fundamental pillars of schooling haven’t changed since the nineteenth century. The curriculum is still dictated from above, and applied indiscriminately to all. The course material is broken down into Tayloristic subjects and work tasks. There are set days, hours, and breaks. Pupils are divided, assessed, graded, ranked, modified, manipulated, and adjusted to a working life – in which sitting on a desk for forty years must appear normal.

Schooling is needed for those who suffer and for those who operate the megamachine. Schools are a sign of industrialism. Most schools emerged after industries had started to use fossil coal. This ushered in a new era in the history of planet Earth. Geologists call it Anthropocene. Yet, it makes more sense to re-name the Anthropocene into Capitalocene. It wasn’t humankind as such who drove this globally destructive environmental vandalism, but the dynamics of the megamachine’s endless drive to capital accumulation.

With this, the megamachine started to grow rapidly. Before the so-called Industrial Revolution, Europe’s energy capacity was around 13 gigawatts – primarily animal labor, wood, and watermills. Today, the EU’s demand is 1,500 gigawatts – a more than a hundredfold increase – with around 85% produced by fossil fuels.

Worse, even if there were a complete switch to renewable energies, a solar-powered Megamachine would still plunder the last fishing grounds, the last fertile soils, the last forests, the last ore mines and even the last grain of sand on a beach dug up for India’s Sand Mafia.

The exploitation of India has been part of the megamachine for a long time. During its worst years of famine (1877-1878), India was forced to export 320,000 tons of wheat to Europe. The railways did not transport the grain to the starving, but hauled it off to the world market. Countless people died because they lacked the two cents a day on which to survive. Meanwhile in London, the tills of the wheat merchants were ringing as the megamachine triumphed.

The story was somewhat repeated in China where British traders used South Chinese secret societies – the so-called Triads – as opium distributors building them up into powerful mafia-like organizations that profoundly destabilized Chinese society. Later, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) became a central player in much of this.

To camouflage the worst excesses of the megamachine, it needed what Walter Lippmann called the guided democracy. Guided democracy is tasked with the creation of manufacturing consent.

In short, the megamachine depends on corporate mass media to anchor its ideology in the minds of people. None other than the godfather of public relations (previously known as propaganda) – Edward Bernays – explains why this is:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society […] As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

To create a body of ideas which all right-thinking people will accept the megamachine without question, the megamachine also depends on a plausible ideology. Neoliberalism is just one of them. Yet, imperative to the megamachine is the following: as the megamachine turns information into a commodity, those who have the most money will have the best chance to influence public opinion as they choose.

The author of the megamachine closes by saying that the megamachine is responsible for the environmental “crises that is globally unfolding. It can no longer be watched on TV from a comfortable armchair, as has been the case in most Western countries up to now. It is breaking through into our reality.” In other words, there is a serious potential that the megamachine will make planet earth uninhabitable.

It is not surprising at all that the world’s most influential intellectual and number 96 on the list of the 100 most important books ever written – Noam Chomsky – said about the megamachine, “the topic couldn’t be more important. A very valuable and surely timely contribution. Some might even agree with this assessment of the megamachine, for me, the book is more valuable than everything I learned about history at school.”

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.