Apologists for industrialism, as well as its critics, agree that the industrial mode of economic production, and industrial society itself, do not have the choice of arresting their growth at a desired level, or even to slacken momentum. Like the cancer cell, when the system stops growing, it dies. A carcinoma perishes only after it has killed off the organism on which it has been preying. The industrial process, and the industrial society it supports, will collapse only when two things happen. The first is that global industry is deprived of the natural resources, and the materials it synthesizes from those resources, that it requires in order to continue to produce industrial goods. The second is that the human resources it needs to operate the machines that create industrial wealth and to consume it either disappear, by some means or another, or are reduced to a number of human beings insufficient to perform both functions. Until one or both of these apocalyptic events happen, industry will grind on, bound by the law of endless growth and supported by the ineradicable conviction of consumer society that what it has at present is not enough, that twice or three times as much would still not be enough, that the very concept of “enough” is unimaginable. Arguing from unarguable fact, it is safe to predict that industrialism, reinforced by future technological discovery and invention, will continue to extend and increase its power everywhere in the world to an unimaginable degree.
Partly in order to control and direct industrial might, government has expanded its power to keep pace with industrial power, the twin powers that govern the modern world. But governmental power differs from industrial power in two important respects. The first is that government (no matter what incumbent politicians wish to believe) is not supported by the law of endless growth. In fact, the opposite is true, as Bertrand de Jouvenel argued. When a particular power system exceeds the limits of optimal growth, the countervailing power it has engendered within itself ruptures the body of the host power and causes the process of power’s development to begin anew. The second difference is that the greater and more expansive the industrial system becomes, the more efficient it is in terms of production and monetary profit, though not necessarily in human and ecological terms. Such is not the case with government, which, in concentrating power and extending its reach, becomes proportionately inefficient and feeble, regardless of appearances and its claims to omnipotence. Thus, the potentially fatal contradiction of the modern system: an opposing balance, of sorts, between the two powers that, between them, shape and direct our world—one of them facing toward a future of apparently limitless prospects and power, the other constrained by the nature of human society and the laws (to the extent that these exist) of history.
Contradiction creates conflict, and so industrialism and government have been warring since the latter half of the 19th century to gain the upper hand over each other. Until recently it seemed that government would eventually prevail over industry, the politicians and government regulators and bureaucrats over the industrialists, tycoons, and financiers. But there are signs today that the tables are being turned. José Ortega y Gasset sensed this when he wrote (in Toward a Philosophy of History) that industrialism took root when man began to define himself simply as man the engineer, ignoring (and finally forgetting) earlier definitions of man as a creature of God, man as the conscious being, man as thinker, man as maker—man as legislator.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the concept of man as engineer is valued by a huge margin over that of man as statesman—Steve Jobs, say, over Barack Obama, the erstwhile Man of Hope. (In the United States, unlike the rest of the West, military man—in his role of military engineer, especially—probably takes second place.) Western people everywhere have lost faith in politics, and in democracy itself. They have lost faith in capitalism, finance and big business especially. They have lost faith in empire building and adventurism abroad. They have lost faith, often unconsciously, in religion and in the notion of an intelligible world. They have lost faith, consequently, in themselves and in their enterprises. But they have not lost faith in technique and in technology, the bases of industrialism. They continue to trust in the potential of these things to provide solutions to human and environmental problems, like cancer and global warming. They understand that technology requires industrial enterprise on a grand scale to realize its promises, but they manage to disassociate the two things in their minds. Occupy Wall Street never has, and never will, infest the antechambers of the Apple corporation, nor has anyone ever reproached the late Mr. Jobs for having belonged to the One Percent. Technological industry, now as during the Cold War, is beyond reproach and almost beyond criticism, save from environmentalists—most of whom themselves believe that technique can save the planet, if only it were directed to that purpose. Technique has become a god, who reveals himself to man through technological discoveries and whose miracles consist in showers of manna cast before consumers hungering for the fruits of technique as deeply as they dream of salvation by means of them.
Politicians are often hopelessly ignorant people. (I read the other day of members of the Italian Chamber of Deputies who, held in the jaws of economic crisis, don’t know what, in terms of bond prices, a point spread is, or even the difference between deficit and debt.) But they are usually shrewd, and many of them even possess a certain basic awareness. Deep down, beneath layers of willful oblivion, they understand as well as any of us that government does not create wealth, but merely spends it, wastes it, and shuffles it here and there. In the standoff between government and industry, government knows that it is neither the goose nor the golden egg but the presumptive master of both—now overfeeding or underfeeding the goose, while at all times stealing as many of the eggs as it can get away with doing—and knows that the public knows it, too. Government seeks greater control of industry not simply because it wants a larger share of industrial profit, and because it is in the nature of government to gain ever more power, but because it wishes to be identified with industry, and thus with the technique industry represents. That is an important reason why, upon taking control of General Motors, President Obama announced that the new, occupied GM would undertake the design and production of “green” automobiles, in a well-publicized commitment to enhanced human health and the future of the earth. Nevertheless, governments must act with great care in this endeavor—the danger being that the electorate will construe such actions as the bailout of selfish private interests (such as the Wall Street banks) by the state rather than the rescue by the state of a perceived public benefactor that happens to be privately owned (say, Apple, which of course has never needed to be rescued by anyone). In the event, the government’s purchase of a majority interest in General Motors was relatively unpopular, partly because Americans really aren’t very interested in green cars. More importantly, though, we have yet to arrive at the point where people see such actions as something else than public-private collusion in the interests of a tiny elite, the One Percent: a partnership between business and government that widely and directly serves the public interest by applying technological expertise to scientific issues affecting the public welfare, on the one hand, and the more efficient production and distribution of consumer goods, on the other.
Modern government expects this point to be reached some day, when the symbiotic relationship between industry and government has ceased to be regarded as selfish collusion by the private and public elites and is accepted instead as fair and a more or less equal partnership conducted in the public interest. The next stage in the continuum will have been attained when no one any longer cares whether the partnership is equal or not: when government overbalances the industrial economy on the way to folding it into itself, without widespread or effective popular protest. The process is the converse of the course China has been pursuing for the past 30 years, as government has established an industrial economy through the creation of governmentally owned industrial corporations with which their private equivalents are occasionally allowed to compete—or not, as the Communist Party determines. One can easily imagine the national corporatist state—in which industry functions as a mere branch of government—being for a while acceptable to, and even welcomed by, the citizens of the former Free World as the necessary condition for more and cheaper consumer products, more miraculous technological discoveries and inventions.
After the evolution of democratic industrial capitalism into industrial-corporatism, or corporate-industrialism, a classical political theorist would expect two reactive developments to follow. The first is that the all-powerful, omnipresent state gradually succumbs to increasing inefficiency, as is happening with the People’s Republic of China today. The second is that the cyclical theory of power (which is not at all the same thing as the cyclical theory of history) comes into play. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Power ultimately is its own worst enemy, its own antidote. Every government, every structure of political, economic, and social power gives rise to its own opposition and through it destroys itself. Modern social-democratic capitalism is plainly undemocratic. So is corporate industrialism. That is no reason to expect that these in turn will be followed by a reversion to democratic polities similar to those known to history. After the Greeks and the early Roman Republic, democracy was absent a very long time from the world. For many centuries, ordinary citizens took no interest at all in politics. What liberals call apathy has been the predominant inclination of mankind, the way of the world. We ought not to expect the future to be very different from the past we no longer care to remember.