Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Paul Valéry and the Mechanisms of Modern Tyranny

All modern forms of government presume an objectification of their citizens.

Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody

French poet and essayist Paul Valéry (1871–1945), c. 1910, by Georges d’Espagnat (1870–1950); photograph © CCI / Bridgeman Images..

In 1922, the former director of the Havas News Agency, a certain Edouard Lebey, died in Paris. The man who had been Lebey’s private secretary for more than two decades, handling his correspondence and personal affairs, reading aloud to him for hours from novels and travelogues, suddenly found himself out of a job, at the age of fifty, with a family to support and no other qualifications than being a famous poet. From Lebey’s death until the end of his own life, in 1945, Paul Valéry did what he could to transform his literary fame into an income, turning out essays, speeches, prefaces, and limited editions of his work seemingly on demand. His celebrated dialogue Idée fixe (1932) was written on commission for an association of surgeons; he was even accused of forging his own original manuscripts in order to sell them multiple times, a joke truly worthy of this master of self-reference, if joke it was in the face of simple financial necessity. The accusation, in any case, caused the prices of his manuscripts to plummet on the rare books market. So when Antonio Ferro, the Portuguese propaganda minister, offered the poet 2,400 escudos for a preface to his book Salazar: Portugal and Its Leader, the only second doubts that likely crossed Valéry’s mind were the ones with which he opens his short essay: “I know nothing about practical politics, where I presume one finds everything I flee.”11xPaul Valéry, “Idée de dictature,” in Regards sur le monde actuel (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1945), 92. All translations are my own except where noted.

Then, too, in 1934 the word dictatorship had very different connotations than it would even a few years later. And even among the many dysfunctional democracies of that tumultuous era, the First Portuguese Republic had been a study in instability, an endless succession of governments, intrigues, and attempted coups, budget deficits and runs of inflation. So when in 1926 a successful coup d’état finally put the fledgling republic out of its misery, the event was greeted by a sigh of relief, on one end of the political spectrum, at least. Shortly thereafter, the economics professor António de Oliveira Salazar was given the task of balancing the country’s books. By financial measures he was spectacularly successful, and in 1932 the frugal, religious, professorial Salazar was appointed premier and began drafting the constitution for the “conservative and corporatist” Estado Novo (“New State”) that would last some forty years. The new dictator framed himself as a defender of tradition and family, social order and hierarchy, against the frenetic pace of modernization and industrialization which he saw tearing European societies apart. Among the threats to be defended against: peasant literacy and, worse, organized labor. Yet the violence underpinning his defense of those supposedly Portuguese values was understated in comparison with that of his autocratic peers and allies. The former American secretary of state Dean Acheson, who was struck by “the beauty of his hands, appropriate to his sensitive face,” found Salazar “the nearest approach in our time to Plato’s philosopher king.”22xAlden Whitman, “Antonio Salazar: A Quiet Autocrat Who Held Power in Portugal for 40 Years,” New York Times, July 28, 1970, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/07/28/archives/antonio-salazar-a-quiet-autocrat-who-held-power-in-portugal-for-40.html. So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Valéry for writing a notably uncritical article on dictatorship with the Portuguese dictator as its model, just as Europe was poised on the brink of tyranny and totalitarianism.

Then again, maybe we should. Despite the essential modernism of his poetry and the tremendous life it contains, despite his undeniable influence on Modernists of all stripes and his continued publication of incisive essays and evocative prose poetry, by the 1930s the image of Paul Valéry as France’s poetic stuffed shirt extraordinaire was not without basis. He hobnobbed with princesses and ministers, scientists and diplomats. “The Duc de Luynes recalled,” he writes nonchalantly in his notebooks in 1920, following with a king- and emperor-laden account of the start of the Great War. Younger poets like Henri Michaux and Louis Aragon could take unmistakable aim without needing to name their target. The provincial acolyte of Mallarmé had been adopted by high society. And was it not precisely this complacency on the part of Europe’s elites, their fear of disorder and the masses (not to speak of labor unions), their placid, passive acceptance of dictators promising law and order, that paved the way for Hitler? Of course, there’s much to be said in Valéry’s defense, and his dismissal of the “mediocre and vulgar”33xQuoted in Michel Jarrety, Paul Valéry (Paris, France: Fayard, 2008), 568. Mussolini’s ideas as “three bits of rubbish”44xIbid., 875. only scratches the surface of a complex and intelligent political sensibility. He does, moreover, seem to have realized that his entry into the realm of “practical politics” was a major faux pas. Several years later, when Ferro and company tried to rope him into an honorary post in Coimbra (Portugal’s former capital), he politely but firmly refused to have anything to do with them. Yet faux pas or not, Valéry included “The Idea of Dictatorship” in his collected works and the second edition of his widely read collection of political and social essays Regards sur le monde actuel (1945), and from there it entered the canon.

Despite the Lusitanian pretext, the essay is true to its word: It is very much about the idea of dictatorship. The idea, that is, that we outside observers might form of such a regime, the abstract, Platonic idea of it, but also the more tangible idea in the minds of citizens and rulers alike that makes it politically possible. Society moves toward dictatorship, Valéry observes, when government dysfunction grows to the point where it impinges on private lives and it “becomes impossible for the majority of people to mind their individual affairs without encountering some difficulty imputable to the vices of the State.”55xIbid., 97. The resulting shift in popular opinion is a natural one: “The image of a dictatorship is the mind’s inevitable (and as if instinctive) response when it no longer recognizes, in the running of affairs, the authority, the continuity, and the unity that are the signs of deliberate will and the realm of organized knowledge.” (This does not mean, of course, that “it does not contain great illusions as to the extent and depth of the efficacy of political power.”66xValéry, “Idée de dictature,” 95, 96.)

The mind’s response is to project its own ideal of understanding and action on the ruling body. “In sum, as soon as the mind no longer recognizes itself—or no longer recognizes its essential traits, its mode of reasoned activity, its horror of chaos and the waste of its energy—in the fluctuations and failures of a political system, it necessarily imagines, it instinctively hopes for the promptest intervention of the authority of a single head, for it is only in a single head that the clear correspondence of perceptions, notions, reactions, and decisions is conceivable, can be organized and try to impose on things intelligible conditions and arrangements.”77xIbid., 97. While all governments aspire to transform society in some way, while all politics presuppose some view of people as objects in a larger theory of social organization, only a dictatorship can truly aspire to this ideal of mind acting intelligibly on inert society and material reality itself, as if they were simple political ideas.

This transformation of a question of mass politics into the exercise of a single mind will not surprise readers of Valéry’s work. He is no political theorist any more than he is a philosopher, and his protests against philosophy and philosophizing are notorious—which hasn’t prevented philosophers from engaging with him on equal terms. His notebooks are filled with political observations, often aphoristic, often mordant and unexpected. Valéry is a notoriously unsystematic thinker, and it can be misleading to extract consistent theories from this weave of notes and ideas. But the original impulse for the notebooks, faithfully pursued in the pre-dawn hours for more than fifty years, came from a quest to understand intelligibility and grasp the functioning of the thinking self that dates from his rejection of poetry in the early 1890s, and the period of scientific and psychological investigations that followed. Reading the mathematician Henri Poincaré, the linguist Michel Bréal, and the physicists Lord Kelvin and Niels Bohr had led him to dream of discovering a science of thought. This science was not to be one of empirical measurement à la Pavlov, nor guided analysis like Freud’s, but one of internal, and thus in some sense subjective, observation and study. Yet though internal, it remained objective, recording the facts and operations of the conscious and unconscious mind alike as a botanist makes note of the flowers and animals of remote Pacific islands. It owed to the modern scientific spirit a Cartesian and very fin-de-siècle predilection for systematic and rigorous definition. Although Valéry abandoned this grandiose project around 1908, its analytical reflexes imprinted themselves on his way of seeing the world, and the morning ritual of self-watching continued to fill his many notebooks.

Politically speaking, the analysis in “The Idea of Dictatorship” is certainly not revolutionary. Some would be tempted to follow Dean Acheson’s lead and chalk it up as one more variation on Plato’s philosopher king, though we may well wonder whether the discussion of the “importance of youth” to a dictatorship’s perpetuation is a reference to Plato’s educational plans or the Hitlerjugend. Supporters of Salazar, after all, saw him as the voice of reason, and in particular, economic reason, safeguarding the people from the corrupting forces of progress, ruling unperturbed by politics and free from self-interest. But that’s not how Valéry the antiphilosopher describes it. He puts his finger on what we can call the mental geometry, the idea, of the situation: the intelligibility of political action, and the necessary abstraction of the various means, social and material, to achieving it. Every political theory, as he says, “tends to treat men like things—since it’s always a question of disposing of them according to ideas sufficiently abstract to be translated into action.”88x Ibid., 99. But this abstraction of means, this political idea acting directly on the social body, implies a second term of the equation: the mind that conceives the idea. That second term, that self-conscious political will brought to its highest power, is by definition the dictator.

Civil Servant and Perfect Hero

Midway through a letter to his friend André Fontainas dated June 1, 1897,99xPaul Valéry, “Une conquête méthodique,” in Oeuvres I, (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 971–987. First published 1897. the young Valéry launches into a Wagnerian opera of office supplies. The music opens with the “theme of the hour in E Major” followed by the “slumbering-files leitmotif,” until a choir of “scribble and scribble and scribble the page” invites the God of Monster-Files to come to the “sublime Valhalla of Paper.” A superhuman struggle ensues between the “majestic leitmotif of the Admi-Nistration” and the shrill fife of “Slim-Finance.” The hero is saved only at the sounding of “the heroic theme of the Scraper of the Weelsung.” The Daughters of Ink dance in a circle, chastising the “Lazy One” to repeat and repeat his task, then the whole orchestra takes up “the principal motif of the work, ‘Civil Servant, the Perfect Hero.’ Ink invades the stage; the flaming implements are extinguished one by one in the sublime Palace of Files.”1010xPaul Valéry, Lettres à quelques uns (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1952), 56–58. Valéry, we can be sure, had tasted the pleasures of nineteenth-century administration firsthand.

He ended up there by following the advice of another writer. All while writing the foundational books of the Decadent movement (in particular, À rebours, or Against the Grain), books that exerted a large influence on Valéry’s generation, Joris-Karl Huysmans supported himself behind a comfortable desk in France’s internal security administration. Huysmans assured the young and financially insecure poet that he too could find such a niche, in particular in the reports department of the War Ministry, where the older man had connections. So Valéry sat for the administrative exams. (“Monstrous…absolutely unintelligible,” an examiner noted on his essay discussing the role of the army in a nation. “The candidate has a foggy mind that will never make a good report writer. His place is in a bad newspaper. He is a vulgar decadent, a Paul Verlaine in prose who has no business in the administration.”1111xQuoted in Benoît Peeters, Valéry: Tenter de vivre (Paris, France: Flammarion, 2014), 66.) Valéry passed, but just barely, and not until two years later was he offered a job that for three deadening years reduced his creative output to almost nothing but paid, again just barely, the bills.

It was during those two years of waiting, while he was still free, that Valéry wrote his important early texts, “An Evening with Monsieur Teste,” “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci,” and that prescient analysis of German modernization and expansion, “A Methodical Conquest.” (As well as “The Yalu,” a fablelike dialogue between a European and a Chinese scholar that furnished Cormac McCarthy with the epigraph to Blood Meridian: “Your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time.”1212x“The Yalu” in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry: History and Politics, translated by D. Folliot and J. Mathews (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), 371.)

This period was also the occasion for Valéry’s first brush with “great men.” In the spring of 1896, he was fetched to London on the strength of a literary recommendation; his task was to translate propaganda articles destined for the French press, intended to improve the image of Cecil Rhodes’s Chartered Company following a particularly nasty scandal in South Africa known as the Jameson Raid. Napoleon was one of Valéry’s early heroes, the emblem of grandiose conceptions put into vigorous action. The imperialist archvillain Rhodes, who famously lamented, “I would annex the planets if I could.… It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far,” exerted a similar fascination.

The short and highly confidential experience—after a mere three weeks, the young Frenchman was sent home following new developments in the Jameson Raid affair—was intoxicating. It contributed a small but essential piece of Valéry’s reinvention of himself in the wake of abandoning Symbolist poetry. Written shortly after his return from London, “Monsieur Teste” can be read as an inverse, an inner projection, of Leonardo da Vinci—or Cecil Rhodes. Or even of Lionel Decle, Valéry’s direct employer in the affair. It was Decle, an Anglophile French adventurer and colonialist, Rhodes’s associate and, as it turned out, a French double agent, who lent the experience much of its questionable color. Leonardo and Rhodes, men of many gifts, deployed them all, accomplishing great things. Teste meanwhile reserved them for himself. All the subsequent heroes and alter egos that left their mark in Valéry’s notebooks and writings, from Descartes to “Robinson” (Crusoe, that is) and Faust, can be read as a development of this youthful enthusiasm for men of intelligent action. The appeal of an idealized Salazar, half Teste and half Rhodes, even to an older and wiser Valéry, is not hard to conceive.

Valéry’s interest in method also predated his entry into the world of the administration. “A Methodical Conquest”1313x Paul Valéry, “Une conquête méthodique,” 971–987. was composed for an English journal as a “philosophical conclusion” to a series of articles on the military and economic rise of Germany. (His recent brush with Cecil Rhodes was apposite, as the Kaiser’s support for the Boers in the face of Rhodes and the British Empire was a factor in the sense of urgency conveyed in the articles.) The subject of Valéry’s essay is the sense of method and discipline which the Germans, having applied it to their political expansion since Fredrick the Great in the eighteenth century, were now bringing to their commercial expansion, with apparently unstoppable success. With a mix of admiration and misgivings, Valéry describes this “nation that has made, in economic affairs, the experiment of continuous reason, that is to say, of method.” He writes of the disciplined deployment of industrial means and distribution networks; he discusses the mass production of low-cost commodities and luxuries that were once the prerogative of the rich. He describes at length the nascent science of market studies: “This client who thinks himself free and lives in innocence, is analyzed without knowing it, without being touched. He is classified, defined along with his whole city, his province, and his country. They know what he eats, what he drinks, what he smokes, and how he pays. They meditate on his desires. In Hamburg or Nuremberg someone has perhaps drawn the graphs that represent his most insignificant habits.” The whole system functions by a rational division of intellectual labor, with the result that every individual, no matter how highly placed, even among the generals and directors themselves, is replaceable. “Method requires a veritable individual mediocrity,” he observes with what we can only call fascinated horror. The methodical country can dispense even with its geniuses.

Valéry does not pronounce the word that makes itself felt in every sentence of this portrait of excessive systematization, a word that soon was to reign over three years of his life: bureaucracy. For bureaucracy, in its ideal state, is the mechanical execution of a rigorous system or method by unthinking, replaceable administrators. Bureaucracy functions as a strict division of labor between willing and doing, whether within the bureaucracy itself (between civil servants and clerks) or between the administration and its political masters. Such, at least, is Max Weber’s analysis in his well-known article “Bureaucracy,”1414xMax Weber, “Bureaucracy,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. Hans Heinrich Gerth and Charles Wright Mills (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1958), 196–244. First published 1921. written toward the end of the Great War—a war of which Valéry’s 1896 essay was by then considered to have been a prescient warning. Weber, too, in the context of his larger project of chronicling the inexorable rationalization of Western society, describes an ideal bureaucracy as exemplified by the emerging Prussian and then German state. The bureaucracy he depicts is one of efficiency and efficacy, of impersonal expertise, “the reduction of modern office management to rules.” It is impersonal: The bureaucrat “is a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march.” It is deeply rooted: “Once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are hardest to destroy.” Most importantly, it is a tool of power: “Bureaucracy is the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘societal action.’ Therefore, as an instrument for ‘societalizing’ relations of power, bureaucracy has been and is a power instrument of the first order—for the one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus.” It’s a point that for Weber, and for us, bears repeating: “One has to remember that bureaucracy as such is a precision instrument which can put itself at the disposal of quite varied—purely political as well as purely economic, or any other sort—of interests in domination. Therefore, the measure of its parallelism with democratization must not be exaggerated.”

When in 1934 Paul Valéry wrote of a dictator “imposing intelligible conditions and arrangements on things,” the unstated agent of that imposition was naturally the bureaucracy. The degree to which it can be elided in his analysis depends on political will, exactly as Valéry describes, but also on the administration itself, how efficiently it functions, how closely it approaches the ideal: that is, the ideal of the Prussian bureaucracy that Valéry so perceptively traced back in 1896 and Weber was to analyze some twenty years later. Practical politics and real dictators require real bureaucracies, but the idea of dictatorship can be articulated in terms of an ideal administration that is efficient, qualified, and, most important, transparent: When it works best, it can’t be seen at all.

Valéry was grateful to leave the War Ministry after only three years. Although working for Edouard Lebey imposed its own kind of burdens, leaving the administration for the comparative freedom of his new job made a return to poetry possible, when the impulse came fourteen years later. His experience earned him a chapter of his own in Guy Thuillier’s 1980 history of nineteenth-century French bureaucracy, but the major lyric poetry of this late-blooming poet was almost lost to the cogs of the administration. During those three hard years he managed to continue his morning notebooks and saved enough energy to read the likes of Napoleon’s letters and Marx’s Capital in the evening, but not much else.

It also kept him out of the hustle of Parisian literary magazines, which likely would have been just as detrimental to the solitary efforts of his poetry to come. While Kafka’s genius was precisely one of bureaucracy, and Fernando Pessoa’s of literary cafés, and Borges’s of the great library where he worked, Paul Valéry’s was of the lonely morning hour when all that exists is a brightening landscape outside the window, the curl of cigarette smoke, and the thinking subject whose sight alone seems to bring the world into being.

Perfecting Bureaucracy

In 1934, when Valéry was writing his preface to Antonio Ferro’s book on Salazar, the electronic computer had yet to be invented. All this talk of systematization and mechanization, these metaphors of cogs and machines, these rules to be mindlessly applied in ministries and corporations alike, were leading somewhere; the process of mechanization was in full swing, companies and public administrations alike were rife with calculating machines of every sort, each descended in its way from Leibniz’s Step Reckoner and Jacquard’s loom and Babbage’s Difference Engine. But these were mechanical devices, based on thousands of intricate moving metal parts and designed to solve specific problems. True, with a little finagling, a punch-card tabulator could be used to calculate lunar tables, but it was designed to tabulate the census.

In 1935, at least theoretically, it had been. That was the year Alan Turing, a young logician at Cambridge, wrote his article “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,”1515xSee Charles Petzold, The Annotated Turing (Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2008), which walks through Turing’s paper line-by-line. published the following spring. In a leap that spanned the usually antagonistic fields of abstract and applied mathematics and already contained a fertile spark of electromechanical imagination, Turing’s solution to the tongue-twisting Entscheidungsproblem (or “decision problem”) showed how a “universal computing machine” could calculate anything that a mathematician armed with a pencil and paper, and following rote rules, could do. A mere ten years later, after unprecedented wartime efforts in the fields of radar, nuclear weapons, and codebreaking in which Turing himself played an important role, the first general-purpose computers began to be built.

“The apotheosis of the civil servant,” the historian of technology Jon Agar argues in his book The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer, “[is] the computer.”1616xJon Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 3. It’s easy to forget, amid today’s ubiquitous talk of disruption and innovation, that the invention of the computer did not so much revolutionize bureaucracy as perfect it. Agar explores both sides of the equation as they played out in England. On the one hand, he shows how the movement to rationalize and automate the processes of government administration, the division of labor between thinking (civil servants) and doing (clerks), prepared the way for the use of machines in government, from typewriters to desk calculators to punch-card tabulators and finally electronic computers. On the other hand, we see how this very development of mechanized bureaucracy, and the metaphors and divisions of labor that it engendered, provided a framework for thinking about computing that enabled Turing’s conceptual leap. The nineteenth-century dream of total knowledge and its nightmare of total administration, which are one and the same thing, were brought to fruition by those first one-ton behemoths at the Moore School, at the University of Manchester, at Princeton, that first started ingesting and spitting out punch cards in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For seventy years now we’ve just been working out the details.

Charles Babbage’s famously never-completed Difference Engine, Agar reminds us, was not the solitary work of a misunderstood and neglected genius, but was in fact largely funded by the British government and conceived by its inventor and promoters as a way “to give us the same control over the executive which we have hitherto only possessed over the legislative department,” to quote the words of Babbage’s friend Giovanni Plana, which the inventor cites in his autobiography. What they had in mind was nothing less than the direction of the state by a coterie of experts, and in particular those who had mastered two languages, statistics and the code of the machine itself, to the detriment of career politicians and the political process.1717x Ibid., 39–44. Alan Turing’s work, too, was inextricable from the world of bureaucracy and governance.1818x Ibid., 69–74. His father worked in the colonial Indian Civil Service, and Turing was raised amid its ingrained categories of civil servants who thought, and rote “mechanicals” who didn’t. When his mentor at Cambridge, Max Newman, suggested that the Entscheidungsproblem might be approached “mechanically”—that is, in the sense of formally examining how a mathematician mechanically performs calculations—Turing started not with a mathematician but an administrative clerk, and ended up with a machine.

The Entscheidungsproblem was a challenge in mathematical logic. Formulated by David Hilbert, it asks whether, within a given formal system, a process can be defined to calculate the truth or falsity of all propositions. Working at the same time as Turing, the American logician Alonzo Church approached the problem by creating a new mathematical notation for expressing such calculations. Turing described a hypothetical machine to actually do them. Turing’s machine has a “head” that reads, writes, and erases symbols on an unlimited supply of paper “tape” divided into squares, one symbol per square. These symbols can denote the final answer, or the intermediate records needed for doing the calculation. What the machine does at each step depends on its current internal “state” and what symbol it reads on the tape in the current square. Following a finite set of rules of the type “In state X, on reading symbol A, advance one square to the right, write symbol B, and change to state Y,” it proceeds to print the solution to its problem. These rules translate, in terms of the machine’s step-by-step operations, an algorithm of the type mathematicians have used for millennia to perform complex calculations. Indeed, Turing gave some ingenious examples for nontrivial problems, showing an early gift for writing software.

Like the calculating machines already in existence, Turing’s first machines are each designed to solve a single problem, starting with a blank supply of tape and “built” with a specific set of rules. But these single-use machines were insufficient for his purposes, and a goodly portion of “On Computable Numbers” is devoted to describing what he calls the Universal Computing Machine. This new beast is not hard-coded, as we would say today, with the instructions for one given problem. Nor does it start out with a blank tape. Rather, to solve a given problem, an appropriate machine of the single-use type is defined and then encoded as a series of symbols, printed on the beginning of a supply of tape fed into the Universal Machine. Showing that this encoding is possible is a key part of the paper. The Universal Machine’s own rules then allow it to “interpret” the encoded machine and mimic its behavior, printing the output the simpler machine itself would have printed.

Mathematically, Turing used his machines to prove important facts about the class of computable numbers—for instance, that they represent only a small proportion of all numbers, and that a single mechanical process is capable of computing all of them. Computer scientists use the term “Turing-equivalent” to express the fact that pretty much every computer, no matter its construction, is theoretically equivalent to Turing’s Universal Machine in terms of what it can calculate. Like Alonzo Church, he answered David Hilbert’s challenge in the negative: A general decision process for formal systems does not exist. But leaving the bounds of pure mathematics, he also showed the way forward for creating such a machine, including the important step of using the tape both to encode the problem (“software”) and serve as the machine’s internal storage (“memory”). Turing’s very theoretical paper had a decisive practical influence on all the early efforts to build functioning computers.

In his paper, Turing speaks of “computing machines,” but uses the term “computer” in its old sense: a person, often a woman, jotting down series of calculations on prepared forms for hours on end, in the service of a complicated mathematical problem that she isn’t expected to understand. Such human computers worked by the hundreds and even thousands on government projects like ballistics calculations and cryptography, and even with the aid of mechanical calculating devices, certain calculations could take days or weeks to complete. In what is perhaps the most philosophically significant part of his paper, Turing describes how he arrived at the design of his protocomputer, with its head and tape and internal states, precisely by starting with one of these human computers, writing and erasing symbols on a piece of paper. This human, he observes, has the task not of thinking but of simply calculating; his behavior “at any moment is determined by the symbols which he is observing, and his ‘state of mind’ at that moment.”1919xPetzold, The Annotated Turing, 191. By a series of removals he reduces the human aspects, retaining only what is necessary to interpret the current state of the calculation and advance to the next step. The piece of paper ends up as an endless tape, and the human as a Turing Machine.

Interestingly, the work of Church and Turing (as well as the famous related work by Kurt Gödel) was anticipated by the Polish-American mathematician Emil Post, working about the same time.2020xSee Petzold, The Annotated Turing, and John Stillwell, “Emil Post and His Anticipation of Gödel and Turing,” Mathematics Magazine 77, no. 1 (February 2004): 3–14. Post suffered from bouts of mental illness that kept him from completing his research program, but he also set out to do too much. In the end, he was scooped by the other three working separately on different parts of the problem. In one paper, Post, like Turing, describes a working example of mechanical calculation to prove his point. In his formulation, though, it’s not an endless ticker tape being written on and erased by a machine head, but a single “worker” writing and erasing a mark in a series of boxes, just like a busy clerk. The calculations of Post’s worker, like those of Turing’s machine, are “programmable” in the sense that a given problem is specified by a series of marked and unmarked boxes which are given to the worker as instructions. So the poor clerk, too, is a Universal Machine. Historians of computers now talk about Post-Turing machines in recognition of Post’s contributions, but see him as having missed Turing’s great conceptual leap. This may be true, but his work also throws into greater relief the continuity of these machines with the nineteenth-century clerk. The computer, we cannot repeat too many times, is the apotheosis of the civil servant.

Although the engineers might beg to differ—the IAS computer spearheaded by John von Neumann used some two thousand unreliable vacuum tubes, and even on its best days required constant surveillance while operating2121xGeorge Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (New York, NY: Vintage, 2012).—in theory, all that stands between a mathematician’s formulation of a question in terms of an encodable algorithm and the production of the solution is a transparent, automatic, nonhuman process. On the smallest level, the computer is a realization of that long dreamt-of power, a single mind operating unimpeded on the universe, with the intermediate steps—be they human calculators or bureaucracies, material or conceptual—elided, abstracted away. In the beginning, the mind operates on its own ideas, which are numbers. As computers were quickly applied to both physical problems and administrative ones, the scope of the metaphor widened. Still, programmers fed in instructions and received numbers, which had to be applied by engineers and bureaucrats of another sort. But the thin wall separating the computer’s model of reality from reality itself was not to last long.

What We Call Politics

Paul Valéry was not immune to the metaphors of his time. For much of his life he conceived of writing as a sort of machine, consciously manipulating the reader’s emotions. He was a close reader of contemporary science, and willingly borrowed its concepts and vocabulary. Yet those most common of metaphors, the government machine, the social mechanism, are absent from “The Idea of Dictatorship.” There is passing mention of the story about Napoleon outlining his vision of the state as a body, naturally with himself as its head, directing the rest and receiving intelligence from it: the well-worn Body Politic. But for the rest, metaphors of government are conspicuously avoided, and mechanistic views especially. In a second essay on dictatorship written four years later,2222xPaul Valéry, “Au sujet de la dictature,” in Regards sur le monde actuel (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1945), 103–110. years in which so much had happened in Europe, Valéry is more systematic, and starts by listing familiar images of state: ship and balance, organism and machine. Again though, metaphor and mechanism are not what interest him. Whatever the metaphor, he maintains, the use of metaphor itself implies an objectification of the citizens into units of political theory. In both essays, Valéry frames the question of dictatorship in terms of the mind, the thinking subject acting on objects of thought. These objects of thought are, in fact, through the collapsing of idea and reality that forms the basis of the dictator’s power, the material objects of society.

This phenomenological reading of politics is not limited to dictatorship. All modern forms of government, Valéry is at pains to say, presume an objectification of their citizens. He makes the point in many of his social and political essays, but the most striking statement is meteorological in scope: “The acts of a few men have for millions of men consequences comparable to those that result for all living creatures from the perturbations and variations of their environment. As natural causes produce hail, typhoons, epidemics, so intelligent causes act on millions of men, the immense majority of whom are subjected to them as they are subjected to the caprices of the sky, the sea, the earth’s crust. The intelligence and the will affecting the masses like physical and blind causes—what we call politics.” (These words are from “Grandeur and Decadence of Europe,”2323xPaul Valéry, “Notes sur la grandeur et décadence de l’Europe,” in Regards sur le monde actuel (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1945), 35–36. another gem of a text.)

Even in democracy, political vision is still imposed, by the variously embodied will of the majority, on society as a whole. Indeed, it was a commonplace in Valéry’s time to observe that democracy, born of the political freedom of a nation, led to the progressive restriction of individual freedom; there was a growing sense that politics had been transformed from the aristocratic, Athenian ideal of individual action in the public sphere to the administration of mass society. As W.H. Auden was to observe in The Dyer’s Hand, on the edge of that era and our own, “What is peculiar and novel to our age is that the principal goal of politics in every advanced society is not, strictly speaking, a political one; that is to say, it is not concerned with human beings as persons and citizens, but with human bodies.”2424xW.H. Auden, “The Poet and the City,” in The Dyer’s Hand (New York, NY: Vintage, 1968), 87. First published 1962. With the liberation of whole peoples and social classes, there came a point at which political liberation and technological advancement seemed like the condition sine qua non for individual enslavement.

Valéry was very much aware of this contradiction. He developed it in another well-known essay, “Fluctuations on Liberty,”2525xIbid., 105–106. where in the last of a series of antiphilosophical variations, he points to one of the paradoxes of modern democracy: “In this free country…the number and force of legal constraints is perhaps larger than it ever was. The law seizes man in the cradle, imposes on him a name which he cannot change, puts him in school, then makes a soldier out of him until he reaches old age, subject to be called up at any moment. It forces him to perform such a quantity of ritual acts, confessions, oaths…. I am close to concluding that political liberty is the surest means of making men into slaves.” Nor does he limit himself to explicitly political freedom. “Modern man is the slave of modernity.” “Comfort enchains us.” “There is also the tyranny of clocks.” He ends by imagining a cloister closed to both radio waves and the printed page, where an ignorance of politics is cultivated, speed and number and mass effect are scorned, and behind whose gates “we will one day go contemplate the last few specimens of free men.”2626xPaul Valéry, “Fluctuations sur la liberté,” in Regards sur le monde actuel (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1945), 64–92.

One of the most alluring technological promises today is of an end to this contradiction between political and individual freedom. The new distribution of political power, we are told, will allow a truly local political franchise emanating from the individual, not merely an aggregate political mandate exercised from the top. Through participative institutions and digital tools, individuals will be given the power to actively shape the society which they form. The political will, and the power to impose that will on society, will finally belong to its members.

Reading the digital “revolution” through the lens of Valéry’s essays on dictatorship yields a darker picture. In both essays, as we’ve seen, the relationship between society and the dictator is described not so much psychologically as mentally. In both, the seed of aggregate political will is not mere private interest or some sharing out of the social contract, but an individual will to dictate. In 1934, Valéry asks how a dictator assumes power: At the moment of greatest discord, everyone “thinks dictatorship, consciously or not; everyone feels in his soul like a budding dictator.”2727xValéry, “Idée de dictature,” 96. In 1938, he’s writing not only about the establishment of dictatorship, but also of its perpetuation. (At that point, Hitler had been führer for four years.) “A division of this nature”—that is, between a single thinking, acting head and a populace whose members are nothing but instruments for action or material to be acted upon—“becomes unstable to the degree that the people to whom it is applied contains minds which are themselves dictatorial (that is, who want to understand and are capable of acting).”2828xValéry, “Au sujet de la dictature,” 108.

This last parenthetical is key. Distinctions between good and bad, noble and selfish versions of human nature, cooperation and competition, are not what is at stake. Understanding and the capacity to act (socially, economically, politically) are among the greatest values in our so-called information age, and should belong, we insist, to everyone. But Valéry’s definitions allow us to ask at what point do mechanisms for promoting individual rights to knowledge and agency add up, not to a framework for shared political action, but to a network of interlocking yet increasingly isolated claims. In a dictatorship, “the dictator remains the sole possessor of full liberty of action.”2929xIbid., 106. But what happens when the “budding dictators” becomes real ones, with all their attendant powers? When the “incredible pleasure” of “joining power to thought, of having a whole people execute what one conceived of privately,”3030x Ibid., 106, 105–106. becomes, through the political technology in place, the prerogative of every man?

Like the rational reorganization of bureaucracies in the second half of the nineteenth century, computers began as an implementation of the power to abstract away means and uniformly apply a mindless, rule-based order on unruly reality. Whether that power was wielded by mathematicians drawing up artillery firing tables, politicians directing a census, or a committee of experts crunching economic data, the new machines made it possible to perform complex calculations, both mathematical and administrative, without relying on an army of clerks and human calculators. And this power has only grown greater, thanks to both an unprecedented capacity for data gathering and analysis and the increased propagation of digital tools in every facet of human life.

Mobile applications, whatever their purpose, are little bureaucrats with a checklist or a punch card in our pockets. Whether they are centralized or distributed, deployed by the government or peddled by a small startup, the applications have the same effect: an increasing perfection of the totalitarian vision of nineteenth-century administration. Yuval Noah Harari has argued that these new technologies are allowing authoritarian governments to close the “information-processing gap” that put them at an inevitable disadvantage to the distributed decision making of democracies in the twentieth century.3131xYuval Noah Harari, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” The Atlantic, October 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/yuval-noah-harari-technology-tyranny/568330/. In this sense, digital technologies are indeed tools of old-fashioned tyranny, and could very well provide the missing piece that makes both Plato’s austere philosopher king and Stalin’s Politburo, with their attendant central planning, into viable forms of government.

Harari is still talking about the tyranny of governments, or at most, of large corporations. Yet digital technology is also bringing to fruition that “budding dictator” in every one of us. While the effect of these technologies as a force for democracy has often been overstated, no such qualification is needed when talking about its effect on the democratization, not of land or wealth or liberty, but of the same formerly upper-class comforts and conveniences that Valéry invoked in “A Methodical Conquest.” This is apparent in the advances in automation, the marvels of devices, the improvements in quality of life, that are often held up as the epitome of technical progress. But the power of digital networks to gather and disseminate information also makes it possible to fulfill our individual desires “to understand”—that is, to master the information that is prerequisite to acting intelligibly, especially on a distributed scale, a dynamic of which Max Weber too was very much aware. The networks’ power of abstraction, of eliding intermediary means, makes us “capable of acting” in ways that were not possible before.

For the true digital revolution has been the democratization of tyranny. Its first manifestations in the so-called gig economy can seem almost harmless, and are at most the object of mild social critique: hailing a ride without raising an arm or counting change, ordering a meal without speaking a word or touching a dollar bill. There is, however, a philosophical difference between adjusting the thermostat with a smartphone and summoning a car with it, between purely technological conveniences and the conjuring of services, whether or not we compare their human and ecological costs. The latter, after all, are not only material devices providing a degree of material convenience but means of exercising power over others, organizing labor, imposing order on society, from positions of pure passivity. We conceive an idea, and by a purely abstract mental process, minus a few thumb swipes, it becomes reality. And the brain implants, it appears, are coming.3232xMeghan O’Gieblyn, “As a God Might Be: Three Visions of Technological Progress,” Boston Review, February 9, 2016, http://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/meghan-ogieblyn-god-might-be.

It is this titillation of power, this illusion of freedom that makes us all complicit in what could be the final death of the public sphere. The shape of society, the forms and manners of social and economic relations, are increasingly being determined not by government or custom or other old-fashioned notions but by the seeming transparency of for-profit platforms whose design blurs the distinction between the dictatorial will that implements them and the dictatorial wills that use them. To some extent, what’s happening is merely a deepening of the gulf between the powerful and the powerless, a shift in the line separating those who live and those who serve. But coupled with the race to democratize, it becomes universal in a truly novel way: An Uber driver, after all, may not be able to pay his rent, but he can call an Uber. We live no longer as citizens among fellow citizens but as depoliticized individuals commanding the services of others via enormous networks of people and machines as opaque (yet dangerously transparent) as any nineteenth-century bureaucracy. “It must be an incredible pleasure…joining power to thought, having a whole people execute what one conceived of privately.”3333xIbid. No dictator ever had it so good.