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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Pyramids (p. 190)

From chapter "The Noose Tightens "

I look again at the back of a dollar bill. This time I focus not on the all-seeing eye, but on the truncated pyramid below. I’m thinking about the culture as a pyramid (and a pyramid scheme) where those at the top—those whose eyes characterize the Panopticon, and who are themselves overseen by the beneficent eye of providence—gain from the work of those below. Lewis Mumford wrote of this mode of organization: “The social pyramid established during the Pyramid Age in the Fertile Crescent continued to be the model for every civilized society, long after the building of these geometric tombs ceased to be fashionable. At the top stood a minority, swollen by pride and power, headed by the king and his supporting ministers, nobles, military leaders, and priests. This minority’s main social obligation was to control the megamachine, in either its wealth-producing or its illth-producing form. Apart from this, their only burden was the ‘duty to consume.’ In this respect the oldest rulers were the prototypes of the style-setters and taste-makers of our own over- mechanized mass society.”

Sound familiar? Then try this on, too, “Henceforth, civilized society was divided roughly into two main classes: a majority condemned for life to hard labor, who worked not just for a living but to provide a surplus beyond their family or their immediate communal needs, and a ‘noble’ minority who despised manual labor in any form, and whose life was devoted to the elaborate ‘performance of leisure,’ to use Thorstein Veblen’s sardonic characterization. Part of the surplus went, to be just, to the support of public works that benefited all sections of the community; but far too large a share took the form of private display, luxurious material goods, and the ostentatious command of a large army of servants and retainers, concubines and mistresses. But in most societies, perhaps the greatest portion of the surplus was drawn into the feeding, weaponing, and over-all operation of the military megamachine.”

Stealth bombers, anyone?

Whether we’re talking about dysfunctional abusive families or dysfunctional abusive cultures, social pyramids are never based (at least not for very long) exclusively on naked force (although force always underlies them). A basis in naked force is not pleasing to those in power, who cannot allow themselves to see the evil they have become, nor to those without power, who long for a figleaf of dignity, if they can’t have freedom. Instead the atrocities must be fully rationalized by all. Kings (and modern presidents) rule not just because they’ve convinced a bunch of armed men (commonly called soldiers or police) to kill for them, but because God says they have the divine right to do so. When the machine arrived in North America, its servants did not take the land just because they had more weapons and different morals than the humans who already lived here, but because their every mechanical step was assisted by providential agency. Now, the servants of the machine do not kill the planet because they have a death urge, and because they have convinced hundreds of millions of men and women to participate in the corporate economy—to support production, to support the conversion of the living to the dead—and because they have convinced millions more to be ready to kill to support the actions of this economy, but because, as I read just yesterday in an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, “the system of capitalism and industrialization . . . leads us, properly, to regard nature as only a means to satisfy man’s [sic and, frankly, sick] wishes.”

Lewis Mumford wrote that “the earliest complex power machines were composed, not of wood or metal, but of perishable human parts, each having a specialized function in a larger mechanism under centralized human control. The vast army of priests, scientists, engineers, architects, foremen, and day laborers, some hundred thousand strong, who built the Great Pyramid, formed the first complex machine, invented when technology itself had produced only a few simple ‘machines’ like the inclined plane and the sled, and had not yet invented wheeled vehicles.”

In his monumental Myth of the Machine, Mumford made explicit the relationship between mechanization and control: “Conceptually the instruments of mechanization five thousand years ago were already detached from other human functions and purposes than the constant increase of order, power, predictability, and above all, control. With this proto-scientific ideology went a corresponding regimentation and degradation of once- autonomous human activities: ‘mass culture’ and ‘mass control’ made their first appearance.” Mumford’s words ring true today.

It really isn’t possible to think about pyramids without remembering their purpose. Similarly it really isn’t possible to talk about mechanization without talking about our culture’s obsession with death. Mumford brings them together: “With mordant symbolism, the ultimate products of the megamachine in Egypt were colossal tombs, inhabited by mummified corpses; while later in Assyria, as repeatedly in every other expanding empire, the chief testimony to its technical efficiency was a waste of destroyed villages and cities, and poisoned soils: the prototype of similar ‘civilized’ atrocities today. As for the great Egyptian pyramids, what are they but the precise static equivalents of our own space rockets? Both devices for securing, at an extravagant cost, a passage to Heaven for the favored few.”

Death isn’t an incidental by-product of the machine. The obsession with security ends in wealth-making as ecocide and war as genocide. The obsession with security becomes a death wish not because of the outward appearance or the inner character of the perpetrators; it’s an obsession rooted in underlying, often unconscious motivations. Sometimes it manifests as bloodthirsty, sometimes as larcenous. Sometimes as an overzealous concern for the well-being and right living of others. Sometimes as patriotic pride or dedicated work ethic. Sometimes as pathological lying, as mindless vandalism, or as a good citizen’s respect for the rule of law. But if the underlying motivation is security and rules over freedom, then the end result, the collective result, is to choose comfort over tolerance, rules over responsibility, known over uncertain, wealth over wilderness, control over relationship, and ultimately, death over life. Life isn’t a simplistic set of opposites with one obvious right answer to every question, but the obsession with security tries to make it so.