The world has always been a place of unexamined terms. Probably it has never been so full of them as it is under modern democratic industrial capitalism, which—depending upon the rigor with which one defines the word democratic—is actually a contradiction in terms.
Industrialism, which essentially is applied natural and human power on a large scale facilitated by capitalist financing, implies an equal power that both counterbalances and reinforces industrial power. That power, of course, is government. When Engine Charlie (Charles E. Wilson, onetime head of General Motors and the U.S. secretary of defense from 1953 to 1957) remarked that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” what he was saying was that big government is good, indeed necessary to both American industry and America herself. Never mind that his boss, President Eisenhower, only a few years later warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex,” and that the Republican Party, then as today, advertised itself as the party of small government. Insofar as the GOP represents the best interests of industry, it represents power—scientific power, industrial power, and the political power these things logically entail. So do the Democratic Party, the Conservative and Labour Parties in England, the Congress Party in India, and every other political party, including the Green Party in Germany, that operates above the horizon in any industrialized country in the world.
It is not impossible to imagine a territorially extensive, populous, and powerful state that is, at the same time, democratic, in the original sense of enjoying a constitutional polity that guarantees liberties to its citizens. But in practice, geographical extension and a large population work, as the ancient Greeks understood, against democracy, and so does extensive power lodged in the government. Big government may possibly coexist with democracy, but the odds are greatly against it, as history shows. The industrial system, inspired by Bacon’s motto “Knowledge is power,” has always been about raw power—power over nature, power over other men, power over society, and power over the government it has always sought to compromise and, finally, dominate and control. Power, then, is the ideology of industrialism. And because industrialism is the dominating economic interest in industrial societies, whether “free” or tyrannical, it is the interest whose values hold a preponderance of influence on government, and which is feared and admired equally by public officials and bureaucrats. And the greater—the more powerful, the more godlike, actually—industrial power becomes or appears to be, the more the power of government increases to keep pace with it. In this way, the ideology of power transfers itself from industrial enterprise to reinforce the power ethos and strengthen the apparatus of government itself.
It has long been observed that governments imitate, even if they cannot directly mirror, the governmental structure of their dominant internal institutions, very often their religious establishments. An industrial corporation, like most other private (or predominantly private) enterprises, is not run on a democratic basis; nor, of course, ought it to be, though what Kenneth Minogue calls politico-moralism insists that they should. But a democratic basis, which is precisely what is expected of professedly democratic government, is becoming less and less compatible with what entrepreneurs call the “business model” of industrial corporations—organizations that, when evaluated according to their own criteria of success, have been far more successful over the past quarter of a millennium than any government (save the New England town meeting and, perhaps, Washington’s first presidential administration) ever was. Big business, since World War II, has tended increasingly to model itself on big government through its embrace of bureaucracy, deliberate managerial overcomplexity, and jargon. But the influence has also flowed the other way, as government officials have appropriated to themselves the arrogance, self-indulgent whimsy, and indifference of business managers whose “undemocratic” style cannot be objected to, let alone challenged, within the corporation. This development is being pressed forward by the increasing depoliticization of politics by politicians only too ready to transfer unpopular political responsibilities and decisions onto the shoulders of lawyers, judges, ombudsmen, and the like, who welcome their newfound prerogatives as a means to impose their own undemocratic rule by management and decree.
Paradoxically, in industrial societies the role of government as industry’s champion, representative, and often shameless abettor has been increasingly matched since the early 20th century by its role as industry’s primary regulator, counterbalance, and even, on occasion, naysayer. It is really as if, whatever the relationship in which government finds itself to industry, it cannot lose, but only gain, by that relationship. Insofar as industrialism is a creative force, government benefits by cooperation with industry; insomuch as it is a destructive one, government profits, in power and influence, from its adversarial role, which in fact is often an illusory and dishonest one—in real terms, by allowing it to win additional powers for itself; in political ones by posing as Saint Michael preparing to slay the dragon whose poisonous fumes pollute the radiant atmosphere and whose noxious turds foul the pristine earth.
If any development in history may be said to have been inevitable, industrialism is it. The human brain was designed to study, to invent, and to create; and so, under optimal conditions, it did. The result is “technology,” more accurately called “technique.” And because the human soul is vulnerable to Promethean and Faustian temptations, human morality inevitably falls short of human intellectuality. There is no point therefore in decrying the Industrial Revolution, still less in attempting to fix the blame for it on certain persons or peoples, particular classes or cultures. That revolution as it developed was the direct result of man’s ranking only slightly below the angels—and of the Original Sin that fatally compromised that status. Industrialism is at once God’s blessing upon man and His curse, and the interaction between the two is tragic poetry of the highest sort. Power is necessary to create, and power is necessary to destroy. Power is also required to avert destruction; and it is a bitter, but wholly fitting, irony that the power of modern government, which has been put chiefly to malevolent and, indeed, satanic uses, is now opposing itself to the power of industrialism, which indeed (global warming or no global warming) is busily consuming, and otherwise destroying, the natural world. As I have said, government and industry appear to enjoy a charmed relationship from which both derive advantages unfailingly beneficial to themselves. This is because they are both aspects of that power that enthralls modern man, and that he has made his god. A house divided must fall, but how do you pit the Devil against the Devil? The answer is that the thing can be done, and in such a way that the Devil ends by canceling himself out. The problem is that God and God alone can arrange such a fatal confrontation. Maybe, indeed, He is doing just that, at this very moment in history. That, however, does not relieve us of our present civilizational dilemma.
The industrial project guaranteed from the start that, at some point in the future, industrial civilization (which by now includes, or touches upon, the majority of the planet’s six billion inhabitants) would have to confront the resultant power with power—or else surrender to the two-headed power of industry and government. It is certainly beyond the power of the greatest conceivable government on earth—say, the American and Chinese governments combined, with the U.N. General Assembly added for good measure—to swing industrial (or postindustrial) society around like a 150,000-ton ocean liner going at 32 knots and point the bows on some less dangerous and destructive heading. But government can certainly try, and it will try, to do exactly that. It is perhaps unfair, as well as uncharitable, to patronize the rather self-conscious efforts of people who do their personal bit toward saving the earth—recycling the New York Times and their Italian wine bottles, buying a compact car they can’t fit into, turning a cow into the yard to keep the grass short—but the truth of the matter is that global warming, or whatever dangerously rapid environmental changes we humans are responsible for (and there are probably many of them, including some we’re not aware of yet), could only be effectively addressed (if at all) by tyrannical measures tyrannically coordinated on a global scale. The absolute certainty that such coordination and enforcement undertaken by governments around the world are finally impossible hardly implies that they won’t be attempted, with fatal results for democratic (or any other) freedoms. Moreover, the modern lust for power that industrialism from its beginnings represented will encourage governments to enhance their own measure of power by combining anti-industrial and pro-environmental campaigns with all sorts of other progressive projects, most of them drawn from the politico-moral agenda that strives to denature humanity by transforming it into a race of compliant, mentally hygienic zombies.
In the circumstances, one strains to recall that man’s passionate affair with industrialism began in the expectation that industrial power would be liberating, releasing individuals from backbreaking physical labor and transforming entire societies into a paradise of wealth and leisure. It has, in fact, achieved great accomplishments in that regard. It also conjured a power that was finally to match its own: the hugely enhanced power of what we might call industrial government to nurture it in infancy, guide it in adolescence, and champion and underwrite its titanic undertakings in adulthood. Now these two powers go head to head against each other—but not really. They are both powers, after all, and therefore sisters under the skin. Power never met a power it didn’t like, knowing instinctively how to meld and transfuse itself one with the other to the aggrandizement of them both. Nor does power fear, finally, the uses to which men put it. Power, like nothing else in the world, understands that power can never be liberating, but only an instrument of human enslavement, and that enslavement always serves its own benefit.