XVII: the feast of life - Langdon Winner

XVII: the feast of life


Throughout his life Lewis Mumford grappled with the conundrum of what to do about the relentless march of technological destruction.  Immediately after the first atomic bombs were used in 1945, he proposed: “If we cannot control ourselves sufficiently to create a harmonious world order, then we shall have to destroy our machines.”[i]  In 1970, after laying out his starkest premonitions for the future in The Pentagon of Power, he turned from hope in government policy to a call for citizen response – pointing to civil disobedience as the worthy response to the “murderous confrontations and infantile tantrums” of the “megatechnical wasteland.”  Rather than the seizing of political power that revolution would attempt -- which after the glory days of the decolonization movements was clearly riddled with the inherent problems of power -- Mumford advised withdrawal by “breaking routines and defying regulations.”[ii]
For us today, living as we do in the eye of Mumford’s worst prophetic vision, the thorniest question of all now rears its Gorgon head.  The form of civil disobedience.  If the technological system as a whole is murderous, what might the responsible cadre of citizens do about it?  As Stephanie Mills asks, “Where's the Achilles heel?  Where do we, as Gary Snyder puts it, ‘shoot the arrow to hit the heart of the growth monster’?”[iii] 
Do we storm the factories?  Or organize them?  Charge the malls?  Or stop shopping in them?  Do we tear the offenders down?  Blow them up?  Or vote?  Push for legislation?  Influence elected officials?  Nominate a candidate?  Pass ordinances to keep out corporations?  Tweak the media?  Refuse the military?  Stop paying taxes?  Secede from the nation-state?  Should we stop traffic?  Drive a vegetable car?  Get a horse?  Throw away a computer?  Or sue for damages?  Use interstate commerce laws?  Appeal to the United Nations?  Or God?  Ply acts of kindness?  Go into recovery?  Do we raise chickens?  Plant a garden?  Brain-tan the hide of roadkill?  Break into historical museums and grab up antique technologies?  Store food underground?  Release caged critters from industrial farms?  Become a vegan?  Talk on the radio?  Shoot a video for YouTube?  Start a blog?  Take down a blog?  Do we draw a gun?  Withdraw our services?  Wait?  Do we start a revolution?  Or perpetrate devolution?
The question of violence is embedded in any exploration of tactics.  One does tend to encounter the imprint of violence along the same perceptual synapse where one finds the Luddite rebellion.  At least that is the way the Luddites have been reported through history.  Yet it was those original villagers in England who were themselves beset by violence –- and to add to the confusion of generations to come, it was a violence that was depicted by its perpetrators as normalcy.
Enclosure was the act of seizing the traditional common lands that had supported the villages’ sustainability; it was the method used by the state, corporations, and individuals deemed “deserving” to claim ownership of these lands.  Between 1770 and 1830, Parliament passed 3,280 bills transferring 6 million acres of meadows, fields, wetlands, and forests away from communities into the hands of capitalists.  While such acts were questionable enough, even more shaky arrangements were made outside of government -- another 6 million acres were seized under the table –- until more than half the farmland in England was no longer growing food for people’s daily tables, but rather was being developed for capital profit-taking or the enjoyment of capitalists.[iv] 
Pure and simple: it was a Land Grab.
Then came the factories.  Imagine: by 1814 those same rural villages were overrun by six-story plants belching black smoke where clean air had once blown, dumping dye into the rivers where boys had fished, demanding the labor of men, women, and children who before had gardened and hunted and woven their own livelihoods.[v]
This is violence.
I will tell you my gut reaction when people stand up for themselves -- when a handful of Native communities in Mexico rampages into history on the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement, when Israeli citizens break into a telecommunications company’s penthouse to rip apart its roof-top antennas, when Vietnamese villagers ransack a mining site to destroy the machines that will contaminate their water.[vi]  At risk of being branded “reckless” or “naive” by those who have not taken the time, or applied the intelligence, to weigh the vagaries of the Megatechnical impact: I let out a whoop of glee!
This is not a whoop that champions such actions as political strategies per se.  Maybe, in their contexts, they are relevant strategies; maybe they are acts of recklessness.  Questions of means and success are the thorniest yet; despite all the earnest thinking mounted to address them, they reside embedded in a sad history wherein some strategies have elbowed some success, some have proven disastrous -- and few have succeeded at toppling the basic underlying structures of injustice.
No.  My whoop bursts straightaway from the psyche’s depths.  The Zapatistas standing their ground in the selvaIndígenasstanding up to Bechtel … and winning!  A lone man halting a tank in Tiananmen Square!  Twelve million marching against war!  My whoop is a howl of celebration -- for the glory of courage, for a love so potent it cannot be held back.
Too, this same blossom of courage and love is the quality we might now garner from those lively heroes who rose up against the first inklings of what was destined to befall us all.
The tasks before us are many; they demand an appreciation of their complexity, enormity, interrelatedness -- and the strength of the talents among us that arise to address them.  Look.  Whether you judge the current predicament by peak oil, global heat, climate upheaval, plant extinctions, economic collapse, microwave pollution, social desperation, or conscious restructuring – no matter what language you muster to describe the predicament -- the demise of mass technological empire is afoot.
We do not know how things will unfold.  Predictions foretell of worlds beset by nature’s revenge, tsunamis of chaos, and Dust-Bowl desperation -- as well as of worlds thrust forward by community cohesion and shared endeavor toward a better world.  Just as with our erstwhile society of technology critics, we have some words to speak of what might take place and what we might do … but, in the end, no one can know.
Still, despite the uncertainty, we are alive.  And what fear quakes in our bones?  What grief?  What desperation?  What passion for survival?
Each of us knows something crucial about our plight in these times; we tell our stories.
All of us have been wounded in ways both personal and collective; all need care.  We reach out to one another. 
And, together, we envision.  Based on who we are and where we have been, we etch out new directions and the values we may apply for traveling them.  One thread of this undertaking is to have clarity about what we do not want to take with us; the work of dismantling is critical.  Another is to know how we wish to live; this is the reconnecting, the re-communing, the re-invention of the means of survival. 
In our grappling for words one thing can be said: we are beings of spirit and bone, intellect and luminosity, tenderness and terror -- and courage.
To the feast of life!  





[i] Lewis Mumford, The Human Prospect. Boston: Beacon, 1955, p. 230.
[ii] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power, p. 430-435.
[iii] Email from Stephanie Mills, February 6, 2008.
[iv] Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future, p. 34; from Phyllis Dean, The First Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967; Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Captain Swing. 1968. Reprint. New York: Norton, 1975; W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape. 1955 Reprint. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985; W.Q.M. Howitt, Rural Life of England. London: 1838; Pat Hudson, Industrial Revolution. London: Edward Arnold, 1992; J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; M.E. Turner, English Parliamentary Enclosure. Hamden CONN: Archon Books, 1980; Enclosure in Britain, 1750-1830. London: Macmillan, 1984; and Arthur Young, RuralEconomy, 1770 and Observations, 1773.
[v] Sale, p. 26; from W.O Henderson, Industrial Britainunder the Regency. London: Frank Cass, 1968.
[vi] Agence France-Presse, December 28, 2007; and “Mine Your Own Business,”
Earth Island Journal, Vol. 23 No. 1, Spring 2008.




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