The Two-Edged Sword of Power

You are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal. ~Leonard Cohen

In the spring of 1903, most people in upstate New York woke up in the cold. Their stoves were downstairs in the kitchen, and not much heat made it upstairs into the bedrooms.

They would then either use the chamber pot (which would then, at some point, have to be taken outside and dumped) or go outside to use the outhouse and to get water from the well for their morning washing and cooking. They had to feed more coal to the stove so they could cook their breakfast before the men headed out to work ' most likely in the fields, since more than half of all Americans then lived in rural areas like upstate ' and the women remained inside to care for the children (there was no birth control, remember), wash the clothes (no washing machines), prepare dinner and supper (no microwave, no McDonald's), and clean. The kerosene lamps, for example, needed constant tending ' they had to be filled and wiped, their wicks trimmed; the chimney and shades needed washing. And the stove! Thomas Schlereth mentions an 1899 study by the Boston School of Housekeeping which reported that, every day, a coal stove 'required at least 20 minutes spent in sifting ashes, 24 minutes in laying fires, one hour and 48 minutes in tending fires, 30 minutes in emptying ashes, 15 minutes in carrying coal, and 2 hours and 9 minutes on blackening the stove to keep it from rusting' (Victorian America, p. 130-1)

If they went into town, they needed a horse or a mule. Everyone needed an animal like this for transportation. According to Schlereth , New York City's horse population deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the city's streets every day (p. 20). And, at 10-15 miles an hour, travel took time ' plenty of time. One of my relatives ran a stage (yes, a stage!) a hundred years ago that took three hours for a 15-mile round trip up and down a hill to town and back.

Few of us today would want to live like that. We want the heat to come on in the morning and we want hot and cold running water at our fingertips for our daily shower. We don't want to spend hours washing clothes or regulating the heat. We want electric lights and television; we want CDs and DVDs and SUVs! In fact, we more than just want them anymore. We expect them. We require them.

We need them. To live without them totally frightens us.

At the same time, many of us worry and complain about the constant growth of the State: the ever-increasing tax bite, the propaganda, the militarism. We don't want these restrictions, these rules and regulations, all that paperwork and bureaucracy. We want, in many ways, the government we had in 1903. We had no income tax at all then. Propaganda was blunted by the simple fact that the only medium though which it could propagate was print; film was in its infancy, radio was about 20 years away and television another 45. The military, though having recently defeated Spain, was relatively small and inexpensive.

We want, in short, the good without the bad. Who doesn't? But perhaps they go together. Perhaps you can't have one without the other. Perhaps they're simply different sides of the same coin. What makes us think we can have the good aspects of technology without the bad ones?

Think of the massive complexity of our modern lives. Think, for example, of our dependence upon the automobile, and then ask yourself if you could fix yours if something went wrong. For most of us, the answer would be no. The 1968 Volkswagen is no more. Cars have become so computerized, so technologically complex, that the average person no longer has any idea how to repair it. Ask yourself how much money and how many people it takes to maintain the roads and bridges in such a way that they don't cause accidents or death. What good would our cars be without those roads? Ask yourself about gasoline: Where does it come from, and how does it get here? And what about tires? Batteries? Windshield wiper fluid? Those little pine-tree air fresheners?

Think of all the ways in which we are quite literally, physically, tied to one another with concrete and pipelines and wires. Where does our water come from? What do we do if it stops? And our electricity ' how is it produced? How does it get into my wall? How do computers work? And how do I fix it when it stops?

How does my heating oil get here? What about the natural gas? Where does it originate? Who laid those pipelines, and when? And how do I heat my home if the gas stops coming?

What about those vegetables at the supermarket? Where did they come from this winter, and how? What about the bread? The milk? The meat? The Diet Pepsi? What about the cans they put the Diet Pepsi in ' where did they come from? What would I eat if the supermarkets run out of food? And why is it that they never do?

This, of course, just scratches the surface of the technological complexity which has helped give rise to the modern State. Writes the brilliant Jacques Ellul in his masterpiece The Technological Society:

'The whole edifice was constructed little by little, and all its individual techniques were improved by mutual interaction. Before long, however, the need for still another instrument appeared. Who was to co-ordinate this multiplicity of techniques? Who was to build the mechanism necessary to the new economic technique? Who was to make the decisions necessary to service the machines? The individual is not by himself rational enough to accept what is necessary to the machines. He rebels too easily. He requires an agency to constrain him, and the state had to play this role ' but the state now could not be the incoherent, powerless, and arbitrary state of tradition. It had to be an effective state, equal to the functioning of the economic regime and in control of everything, to the end that machines which had developed at random should become 'coherent.' To this end, the state itself must be coherent. Thus, the techniques of the state ' military, police, administrative, and political ' made their appearance. Without them, all the rest would have been no more than faint hopes unable to attain maximum development. They intermingled, necessitating one another, and all of them necessitated by the economy' (p. 115).

The Twentieth Century saw the coming of indoor heating and plumbing, automobiles and television, movies and computers. It also saw governments in Russia and Germany and China and Cambodia murder millions of their own people ' and it is not a coincidence that they coincided. They came hand-in-hand. The Twentieth Century was the Century of Power in all its forms, all its ramifications ' all its terrible glory. Technological power is a deadly two-edged sword providing both good and evil; it not only allows you to read my thoughts right now, it also allows the State to know that you're doing it. What it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Can it provide one without the other ' can it give without taking? Or is there, indeed, always a price? And if so, is what we get worth the cost?

'The human being,' writes Ellul, 'is delivered helpless, in respect to life's most important and trivial affairs, to a power which is in no sense under his control. For there can be no question today of man's controlling the milk he drinks or the bread he eats, any more than of his controlling his government' (p. 107). And as long as we accept the blandishments of modern technological society, perhaps he's right.

But must we accept these blandishments? How much do we really need our cars, our televisions, our electricity, our gas, our oil ' our computers? Perhaps we can weaken the power of the State by weakening our dependence upon technological power. After all, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden 150 years ago: 'Most of the luxuries, and many of the co-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.'

It's worth a try, isn't it?

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.