Democracy vs. the Megamachine

Photograph Source: Photo by Isis França

The years since the late 1700s have been marked by waves of struggle for a more democratic, egalitarian society that have repeatedly been rolled back by power elites. From 18th century political revolutions, to 19th century labor struggles, to civil rights struggles, to the cultural uprisings of the 1960s, people’s movements have made gains. But the rulers of the system have been successful in limiting those gains and pushing back those movements. Their very successes have brought about a rapidly accelerating global economic and ecological crisis that now threatens to crash an order as old as civilization itself, that of the Megamachine.

That is the picture Fabian Scheidler presents in his compact history of how we have arrived at the current moment, The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. Densely detailed, it summarizes the development of hierarchical civilization since earliest developments in the Middle East some five millennia ago, and dives deep into its modern emergence in capitalist form over recent centuries. (Those are covered in previous installments here and here.) That form has spurred many movements of resistance, which have been met with tactics ranging from force to manipulation of public opinion.

Seeking to concentrate power

“The modern world-system was formed using massive violence against egalitarian movements,” Scheidler writes, “and the military and economic institutions that are still part of its basic structure were created to concentrate power in the hands of the few.”

The late 1700s saw revolutions in the British North American colonies to create the U.S., and the French Revolution. They were complex affairs that involved elites and also spurred democratic aspirations among the masses. But within a few years, elites had gained control. In the U.S., the Constitutional Convention drafted a document explicitly designed to limit democracy. It enshrined what John Jay, the first Supreme Court chief justice, said, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” In France, the answer was the terror of the guillotine and the rise of Napoleon.

The brutality of the industrial revolution uprooted peasant life and the regular rhythm of activities in which work played an organic part. It replaced that life with the harsh discipline of the factory and slum cities. In response rose labor movements that created new social roots, with a range of associations and cooperative organizations. These movements saw themselves in fundamental opposition to the system, seeking not just better wages, but a more democratic structure of ownership.

Through the 19th century, egalitarian movements would be shoved back by brute force, whether it was in wars against the many revolutions that broke out in 1848-9 to the attack on the Paris Commune in 1871. Governments or all labels engaged in this violence, whether “conservative,” “liberal,” or social democratic.  Labor did find an ironic leverage point in the resource used to fuel the growth imperative of the capitalist order. Coal was only mined at limited locations, and transported on rail networks that could be disrupted. Labor won concessions by interfering with this vital energy flow.

Government by the “specialized classes”

Struggles over the past two centuries have achieved some level of democratic rights, notably universal suffrage. “This was due to the remarkable perseverance and organizational efforts of worker’s, women’s and civil rights movements,” Scheidler writes. They came about not through capitalism, but by struggle with it, he emphasizes.

In response, elites have opted for two routes. One is outright totalitarianism, as was the option taken in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s. The other is controlled representative democracy, the path chosen in the U.S. Scheidler details some of its U.S. progenitors. Edward Bernays called out the “invisible government which is the true ruling power,” exerted by “conscious and intelligent manipulation” of public opinion. Walter Lippman saw a “specialized class” leading the “bewildered herd” through the “manufacture of consent.”

That structure prevailed in the revolutionary Soviet Union as well as the capitalist west,  Scheidler notes. Though the early days of the 1917 revolution saw some power in workers’ and soldiers’ councils, under the pressure of war waged by the west, centralized power prevailed. Lenin “considered the general population . . . incapable of making rational decisions, and believed that they should be governed by a trained elite . . . The astounding level of agreement on this question among such different political camps can be attributed to the mode of operation of the Great Machine, which Lenin and his comrades-in-arms wished by no means to dismantle, but merely to use in a different way.”

The wake of the Second World War saw what is described as the Golden Age of Capitalism in the west. “It was a time when the modern world-system experienced the greatest expansion in history.” Consumer societies spread across the west, along with parliamentary governments and welfare states. It seemed “labor and capital had apparently joined hands  . . . “

But from the standpoint of people outside the west, it was a time of vast disruption, with millions driven from their homes for “development” projects. Anti-colonial struggles took place from Algeria to Vietnam. From the perspective of non-human species, “this era looms as the beginning of one of the darkest ages in the history of the planet . . . the start of rapidly accelerating species extinctions that are now threatening to escalate into one of the greatest crises in the history of life on this planet.” More carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere from 1971-73 than the first 150 years of the industrial revolution from 1750-1900.

The world revolution of 1968

In the early parts of his book, Scheidler introduces the concept of the four tyrannies that make up the Megamachine, a description of a hierarchical civilization he draws from 20th century public intellectual Lewis Mumford. Scheidler sees the rise of hierarchy in the emergence of metal, bronze, iron and steel, of which were crafted weapons and armor that gave disproportionate advantage to elites. Out of this came the first tyranny, the physical violence of the state. This allowed property ownership and the accumulation of wealth, leading to the structural violence of economic coercion, the second tyranny. The third tyranny, the ideology to justify elite rule, emerged in the visage of a dominant god whose will was done by kings and priests. Underlaying this was the fourth tyranny, the sense nature and people could be controlled through linear thinking.

The four tyrannies ramified in many ways throughout the millennia. Reaching their first peak under Rome, they went into abeyance when power was decentralized in the “Dark Ages” after Rome fell. But the emergence of finance capital in Italy in the late middle ages, funding the creation of armies and colonization of lands beyond the west, revived the Megamachine in capitalist form. By the last two centuries, this produced militaries and wars of unprecedented scope and economic violence oppressing billions, supported by an ideology of “progress” and a sense the world could be controlled like a machine.

That produced a decisive break, which Scheidler calls the “world revolution of 1968” which “challenged the global system in a much more fundamental way than the now established “old left” . . . “who had little more to offer than another variation on system management. The new movements did not seek a mere redistribution of wealth, but a radically different way of life.” A cultural movement expressed in music, literature, theater and film sought a more common basis of economic life. “ . . . the 1968 movements posed a challenge to all four tyrannies: the tyanny of the market; the physical violence of the state; the ideological power of the media, schools and universities; and the tyranny of linear thinking, technocracy and the idea of total domination over nature.”

For the first time in U.S. history, a war aroused mass opposition. The idea of a “guided democracy” was holed by an upsurge in participatory actions. Blacks, indigenous and women demanded greater freedom. Ecological movements rose to challenge the destruction of nature.  “Virtually all the institutions on which power and domination had been based in the last 500 – or even 5000 – years were now faced with enormous challenges.”

The neoliberal rollback

The system responded with outright violence and covert manipulation. Political movements of the time politically splintered, while many shifted to spiritual liberation, consumerism and working within established institutions. Nonetheless, “The ideological foundations of the system had been permanently shaken.”

Beginning in the 1970s the system’s elites would seek to roll back aspirations for a more democratic and egalitarian society. Neoliberal ideologies would strip the public sector to place more power in the hands of the undemocratic private sector. Privatization of public functions would increase private profits while further disabling public enterprise. Social democratic parties from Europe to the U.S.would adopt free market ideologies. Propaganda arms of the elite would seek to turn the pursuit of freedom into freedom from the state, while in reality the military and police power of the state was vastly increasing.

Commercialization of academia would shut down a key center of resistance, while concentrated media ownership would narrow the limits of acceptable discourse. Nationalism and religious fundamentalism would be used to weld societies around fear of “the other.” Debt would be used to hobble independent initiatives in the global south.

These policies, continued to this day, have rolled back the egalitarian surge of the 1960s, though not entirely. At the same time, their own contradictions have undermined them. The world is increasingly beset by crises on multiple fronts. Economic crises have recurred every decade since the 1980s. “ . . ., the instability of the global economic system has become apparent to all  . . . The most important reason for this is that the neoliberal rollback was very profitable for only a narrow group, and that it simultaneously weakened demand through wage dumping and job insecurity.” Real structural employment far exceeds fraudulent official figures. Meanwhile, in the global south, from Africa to Central Asia, “ . . . a corridor of ‘failed states’ about 10,000 kilometers long has formed . . . “

The increasing crisis of the system has eroded its ideological foundations. “  . . . the collapse of optimism and progress ideologies that has shaped Western civilization for more than 200 years cannot be overlooked.” “ . . .  citizens’ loyalty to their state, which has been painstakingly nurtured since the 19th century, is waning  . . . Citizens are turning away from established politics, options are becoming more radical, and the system is growing even more unstable.”

The ultimate limit

Economic limitations based on structural inequity could be corrected though public spending, Scheidler notes, though powerful interests would oppose that since it would diminish their wealth. But the “ultimate limitation” of the Megamachine is now staring us in the face. “  . . . the machinery of endless money accumulation needs a permanently increasing input of energy and raw materials. Patently, this also translates into an equally fast-growing output of waste and greenhouse gases.”  Scheidler attacks notions of “green growth,” because savings in resources always have a rebound effect, generating money that will still seek reinvestment opportunities, growing the Megamachine yet further.

“With the tremendous expansive and destructive power of the worldwide Megamachine, we have now reached global thresholds that affect virtually all systems critical to human life: soils, forests, seas, climate, biodiversity and fresh water cycles,” Scheidler writes, citing key examples, including the loss of nearly one-third of arable land in the last two centuries, spreading water shortages and the emergence of the sixth great extinction in the planet’s history. Studies indicate a collapse of global food production by 2040.

“No one can say which subsystems will fail first, and in which part of the system, or when it will happen, or what the knock-on effects might be. We only know that the probability of such failures will increase rapidly if the Great Machine continues to operate . . .  Ultimately, the only devices that could possibly help now were never installed in the first place – a brake and a reverse gear.”

This first appeared on The Raven.