THR Web Features   /   June 16, 2022

Mechanization and Monoculture

Why eliminating the unpredictable leads to unintended consequences.

Alan Jacobs

( Jules Bss via Field from above.)

Near the end of his brilliant memoir Tristes Tropiques, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss describes his visits to various rum distilleries in the Caribbean:

In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh.

Meditation on this contrast leads Levi-Strauss to a more general insight:

We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: Its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.

A melancholy reflection, to be sure—but perhaps not an inevitable one.

The Puerto Rican rum industry observed by Levi-Strauss is a clear example of what happens when, as Sigfried Giedion put it in his still-essential book from 1948, Mechanization Takes Command, mechanization conquests more and more dimensions of human existence: agriculture, food production, bathing and washing. He even has a chapter on how mass-produced furniture changes our very posture. In a conclusion slightly less despairing than Levi-Strauss’s, Giedion outlines his major points:

  1. “Mechanization is an agent, like water, fire, light. It is blind and without direction of its own.” It is “like the powers of nature.”
  2. Consequently, “Often [mechanization] penetrated domains that were by nature unsuited to it…. Means have outgrown man.”
  3. “Never has mankind possessed so many instruments for abolishing slavery. But the promises of a better life have not been kept. All we have to show so far is a rather disquieting inability to organize the world, or even to organize ourselves. Future generations will perhaps designate this period as one of mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all.”
  4. “It is time that we become human again and let the human scale rule over all our ventures. The man in equipoise we must achieve is new only in contrast to a distorted period. He revives age-old demands which must be fulfilled in our own way if our civilization is not to collapse.”

But how is this to be done? I think there may be a useful way to frame the relevant issues: as a matter of ecology.

After all, the difference between between the “mellow, scented” rums of Martinique and the “coarse and harsh” rums of Puerto Rico is largely a matter of ecology: The “impurities” Levi-Strauss refers to are organisms, organisms that interact with one another in complicated and unpredictable ways that lead, ultimately, to nuanced and complex—and highly variable, from vat to vat—flavors in the end product, rum. To replace “ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter” with “white enamel tanks and chromium piping” is to make the process of rum distillation less wildly organic and therefore less ecologically diverse. And this simplification is, as Giedion might put it, what mechanization wants: a regularizing, an elimination of the unpredictable—everything unpredictable and uncontrollable is designated as an “impurity”—and therefore a remaking of organic processes to render them something more inorganic.

Here is what I want to say: as with biological ecology, so with social ecology. Consider Ibram X. Kendi’s dream of a Constitutionally-mandated Department of Anti-Racism (“comprised of formally trained experts on racism”) that ceaselessly and universally monitors society for signs of racism. Consider also the state of Florida’s recently-passed law decreeing that “classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles of this subsection,” including this principle: “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and be rewarded for industry.” Both the dream and the law operate according to the same logic: that one’s vision of the common good is best achieved, if one happens to hold power, by deploying the mechanisms of the administrative/bureaucratic/legal state to eliminate social impurities.

Indeed, it seems to me that the one indisputable thing we can say about our current illiberalisms, of the left and the right (and this is the first of several theses I seek to promulgate here): All illiberalisms are intrinsically mechanistic. It is always their goal for mechanization to take command—as long as mechanization serves their ends. It does not seem to occur to them to ask, with Giedion, whether mechanization ever actually does serve human ends. Which leads us, I think, to a corollary thesis: Insofar as illiberalism is mechanistic, it is inhuman.

Let us consider a historical analogue: the Albigensian crusade. Many (though of course not all) of the churchmen who sought the suppression of the Cathars and their heretical theology would have been eager to suppress other dangerously wrong ideas: from Jews, from Muslims, from pagans. And yet had such suppression ever been achieved, Thomas Aquinas could not have written his works, which engage ceaselessly with Jewish, Muslim, and pagan thought—even (especially?) thinkers he believed to be profoundly wrong exercised his mind and imagination. He—and therefore we—would have been profoundly impoverished without access to wrong ideas.

Two further theses are about to emerge; we can help them along by returning to biological ecology. In the nineteenth chapter of his magnificent book Woodlands, the historical ecologist Oliver Rackham describes what can happen when a landscape has been (for whatever reason) deforested. One common response, especially in Britain in the middle third of the twentieth century, was the plantation: filling the land with a single species of tree deemed to be useful. (One critic of Rackham’s lectured him, “Foresters ought to be growing trees for the industries of today.”) But, Rackham shows, plantations rarely work—the trees just don’t do well. The reason: Like philosophers and theologians, trees need highly diverse, complex ecosystems in order to thrive. Insects, for instance, through their lives and deaths alike, are necessary to create vital soil conditions—but what if the most ecologically valuable insects don’t eat the trees you want to grow? You need, it turns out, other trees and shrubs and grasses and mushrooms and other fungi that the insects do like, but by banishing all those from your plantation you have deprived your preferred trees of their necessary nutrients.

Thus my next two theses: Mechanistic illiberalism seeks to create a monoculture; and Any attempt to create a monoculture is necessarily self-defeating.

This may seem to return us to the melancholy reflection of Levi-Strauss: “Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.” But if my analogy between biological and social ecology holds, Oliver Rackham gives us reason to hope.

In Woodlands, Rackham describes his thoughts and feelings during that period in which the mechanistic plantation imperative dominated—the period he refers to as “the Locust Years.” During those years, he writes, “ecologists like myself wrote off about 40% by area of ancient woodland as irretrievably lost to replanting: we accepted the foresters’ claims to have killed off the trees, and shook our heads at the decline of plant life as the planted trees closed in.” But wait: “As time went on, we grew less pessimistic. Many woods were not so easily destroyed; the planted trees declined and native trees returned.” Drought or flood or pest invasion killed off trees that then became food for all kinds of flora and fauna. One result of this was that the various Forestry Commissions gave up on some of their plantations and sold them. These were occasionally purchased by wildlife trusts and other conservation organizations that allowed the woodlands to return to a more natural state. In many cases, the very species with which foresters had once filled plantations, only to see them decline or even die, ended up thriving in the midst of more ecologically complex and varied environments.

Thus my final thesis: Complex, organic ecosystems—whether biological or social—are far harder to kill off than the mechanized makers of monocultures think. And if they could learn to think ecologically, the mechanizers would take comfort in that.