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Man Against The Machine

Paul Kingsnorth explains the anti-human ideology overtaking us all
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If you haven’t yet subscribed to Paul Kingsnorth’s Substack, what are you waiting for? It’s fantastic stuff. The English novelist and essayist is trying to sort out the nature of the battle in front of us all. In his latest entry (subscriber only), Paul suggests that the standard theory of disenchantment is not quite right. Excerpt:

But in an interestingessay for Aeon magazine a couple of years back, the historian Eugene McCarraher took issue with this notion. Modernity, he claimed, did not in fact dispense with the West’s sacred order, leaving only dessicated materialism in its place. Our replacement value system is just as enchanted as before – but we have failed to acknowledge it, because it poses as something else:

Since the 17th century, much modern history has provided good reasons to show that ‘disenchantment’ is more of a fable, a mythology that conceals the persistence of enchantment in ‘secular’ disguise. Capitalism, it turns out, might be modernity’s most beguiling form of enchantment, remaking the moral and ontological universe in its pecuniary image and likeness.

If McCarraher is right, we have not junked a sacred order for a profane one. We have instead enthroned a new god, and disguised its worship as the disenchanted pursuit of purely material gain. We have dressed up as a mere ‘economy’ our new idol and sovereign: the Machine.

He goes on to discuss Lewis Mumford’s views on this:

But, says Mumford – and here is the connecting tissue that links him to Spengler to Macintyre to McCarraher – no society would go to all this effort for purely material ends. The Machine is not simply a vast, soulless mechanism for accruing material wealth. It is, in some deadly fashion, a sacral object in itself. It is its own enchantment:

Communities never exert themselves to the utmost, still less curtail the individual life, except for what they regard as a great religious end … where such efforts and sacrifices seem to be made for purely economic advantages, it will turn out that this secular purpose has itself become a god, a sacred libidinous object, whether identified as Mammon or not. 

This is what Mumford calls ‘the myth of the Machine’. Sometimes, in our age, we call it growth. Sometimes we call it progress. Sometimes we don’t need words, for no words can ever circumscribe a deity. But a deity it is – and throughout human history, from Egypt to Babylon, Sumeria to Rome, whenever the Machine falls, we work to build it up again, because at some level we need to hear the story that it tells us about ourselves:

The one lasting contribution of the megamachine was the myth of the machine itself: the notion that this machine was, by its very nature, absolutely irresistible – and yet, provided one did not oppose it, ultimately beneficent. That magical spell still enthrals both the controllers and the mass victims of the megamachine today.

That it does. Across the spectrum, from conservatives to liberals, Marxists to fascists, socialists to greens, believers to atheists, very little serious criticism of the enwtined myths of progress, growth and materialism will ever be heard in the public sphere. Ultimately, most of us accede to our sovereign, happily or otherwise. We are told daily, after all, that there is no realistic alternative to pursuing what, in Mumford’s telling, is the ‘fundamental animus’ of the Machine:

The effort to conquer space and time, to speed transportation and communication, to expand human energy through the use of cosmic forces, to vastly increase industrial productivity, to over-stimulate consumption, and to establish a system of absolute centralised power over both nature and man.

Conquest and expansion are the essence of the Machine. If it could be said to have an ideology, it would be the breaking of bounds, the destruction of limits, the homogenisation of everything in its pursuit of its continued growth. The end result of this is the flattening of the world – cultures, ecosystems, landscapes, traditions: any forms of resistance which limit the scope of its kingdom. The Machine is, to its core, anti-limits and anti-form: which means anti-nature, and thus anti-human. As such, its endpoint is already clear: it’s been explored in a thousand novels over the last centuries (I recently added my own effort to the list) and predicted and warned against by philosophers, film-makers and scientists. The Machine is aimed squarely at what C S Lewis termed the abolition of Manwhich is also the abolition of nature itself.

Paul lists what he believes are the Characteristics and the Core Values of the Machine. Here they are:


  • Centralised, hierarchical, large-scale society.
  • Effective bureaucracy, able to order and monitor citizenry.
  • Military/police might sufficient to enforce order.
  • Large population, mostly urban/metropolitan, reliant on Machine for survival and thus inclined to defend it.
  • Centrally-directed economy; powerful financial institutions.
  • Need to expand via colonisation (via military might, international treaties or commercial pressure) to secure further markets and resources.
  • Propaganda system, designed to normalise the above (‘the media’).
  • Drive to replace human parts with technological parts; expansion of technological system to all areas of life.
  • Advanced universal communications network, able to both propagandise and monitor/track population (‘the web’).
  • Sophisticated matrix of production and distribution of goods and services (‘the market’).
  • Economic ‘efficiency’ as sole/primary assessment of value. Commerce as primary driver and value of society.

Core values

  • Progress: central myth of Machine age. Material improvement in all areas is both necessary and inevitable. The future will always be better than the past.
  • Openness: limits are shackles, borders are offensive, self-definition is a right. All should be exposed, taboos must be shattered. Happiness will result from fewer restrictions.
  • Universalism: Machine values are applicable everywhere and should be available to everyone by right, given their liberatory nature (see above).
  • Futurism: Against the past, against place. History is to be escaped from, roots are limits to progress, and possibly darkly prejudicial.
  • Individualism: fragmentation of place-based communities, family units and other traditional ways of organising, in favour of the promotion of personal desire and ambition.
  • Technologism: new technology is benevolent and inevitable, and despite hiccups should be embraced. ‘Technology is neutral’ and has no telos: it can be used for good or ill.
  • Scientism: ‘Science and reason’ as ‘objective’, utilitarian arbiters of value.
  • Commercialism: market values infiltrate all areas of life; fulfilment is to be found through material consumption.
  • Materialism: Gods, ghosts and other backward superstitions are to be transcended.
  • TINA: ‘there is no alternative’. The Machine is ‘absolutely irresistible … and ultimately beneficent.’ Opposition is naive idealism at best, and a dangerous denial of its benefits to the needy at worst. Anti-Machine frustration directed into ‘art’, now a neutered and saleable commodity.

He invites readers to add to the list. I really hope you will subscribe to his Substack. He is doing some hugely important thinking and writing there.

What Paul has done here is talk about the fundamental basis of the new totalitarianism, upon which the particular ideology (wokeness, roughly speaking) is built. To be clear, you don’t have to be woke to accept the Machine — indeed, most modern people of all political and religious confessions are more Machine-oriented than they think; and in any case, the Machine precedes wokeness — but the Machine makes wokeness possible, even inevitable. Why inevitable? Because wokeness is the current iteration of Marxist social utopianism, in which a perfectly planned and moderated society brings about total control. But this is by no means an exclusively left-wing thing.

What do you think? Other characteristics and/or core values?