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Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Machine Stops


Michael Kammen’s 1980s book about the Constitution in American culture had one of those great titles, the kind of thing that Bob Dylan might appropriate for a song lyric: The Machine that would go of itself. Kammen took the title from a lecture given in the 1880s by James Russell Lowell:

“After our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Oh these machines! Russell’s phrase gives us that shock of recognition which is something akin to  deja-vu – it is one of those phrases that seem already to have been written or spoken somewhere, to be on the tip of the collective tongue.. A machine that would go of itself is what the classical liberal and the neo-liberal dream of the social is all about – a machine for governance, a market machine, a rational choice machine in the consumer’s head, etc. They are not “turned on” but mystically take their charge from equilibrium itself.

The dream is that the market is our collective intelligent servant and master, knowing everything by its very structure. The state is as small as possible, vis a vis the market, which is controlled by the trade and traffic in private hands (never mind that the company is anything but a private entity). However, the state is as large as it needs to be in order to control the non-virtuous citizens. All citizens, though, are given their turn to vote for a preselected range of “representatives”, from president to city council member.

Lowell continued his speech: “And this confidence in our luck with absorbation in material interests, generated by unparalleled opportunity, has in some respects made us neglectful of our political duties.”

What Lowell sees as a fault, hearkening back to an earlier era of republican virtue, is seen, by the neoliberal, as a virtue: the political economy is de-politicized. The end of history is the end of politics, at least on what Nietzsche called the “Grand scale” – a scale that would attempt, massively, to annul the exploitation and alienation that are not so much byproducts of the machine as its very fuel. The scheme was to drain politics into smaller venues, fights over TV shows and small scale scandals among the disposables in the political class. The feeling of powerlessness that the machines inevitably cause in the populace could be compensated by other forms of power – like the power of choosing to buy one object over another, fruit loops over raison bran, the minimansion over the fixer upper suburban ranch house, ad infinitum. Nobody would notice that their lives were slipping by. And if they did, there were now a number of opioids and anti-depressants that would do just the trick.

That was then. This is now. Now is more the era of Fosters’s The Machine Stops. We’ve discovered that the machines keep not going of themselves. We’ve discovered that the marvelous private enterprise machine, for instance, keeps going up in flames and exploding, and is only reconstructed by the government machine forking out trillions of dollars to bankers and their friends. We’ve discovered the environmental machine is falling apart, quickly. We’ve discovered that consumer choice among the pharmaceuticals hasn’t rid us of our despair, but has dispatched a good many of us via the O.D. And all of this is happening in synch.

In other words, politics on the grand scale is back. It is getting more likely every year that the next time one of the machines explodes in flames, there will be such resistance to putting it back together again that all the machines will have to be … reconstructed.

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