Thursday, October 02, 2014

Homo Economicus

Here is some cheery analysis of the subordination of human beings to economic techniques, from Jacques Ellul, writing originally in 1954:

The bourgeois morality was and is primarily a morality of work...  Work purifies, ennobles; it is a virtue and a remedy.  Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaces God and the life of the spirit.  More precisely, it identifies God with work: success becomes a blessing.  God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well...  This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Sound at all like the Conservative Party Conference?

For the proletariat the result was alienation...  It might be thought that the primacy of the economy over man (or rather the possession of man by the economy) would have come into question.  But unfortunately, the real, not the idealized, proletarian has concentrated entirely on ousting the bourgeoisie and making money...  For the proletariat, as for the bourgeoisie, man is only a machine for production and consumption.

Sound at all like the modern Labour Party?

The counterpart of the necessary reduction of human life to working is its reduction to gorging.  If man does not already have certain needs, they must be created.  The important concern is not the psychic and mental structure of the human being but the uninterrupted flow of any and all goods which invention allows the economy to produce.

In summary:
Money is the principal thing; culture, art, spirit, morality are jokes and not to be taken seriously.  On this point there is once again full agreement between the bourgeoisie and the Communists.

Here's the thing - modern life is not characterised by the conflict between right and left.  That just sits on top of a very substantial agreement over ends and means.  The end is the efficient functioning of the economy, and the means is the efficient marshalling of human capital and the efficient exploitation of natural and artificial resources.  If there is some difference as to how these means are to be established, they are relatively trivial.  Capitalism and Communism are both examples of economic techniques which dehumanise man and turn him into a machine - and therefore each individual into a very small cog in the machine.

How is one to fight against this?  Surely not by planning a better economic or political life; this is just to replace the current technique with another.  We must refuse the invitation to be inhuman, even if that means refusing the invitation to be wealthy and comfortable.  We must live for other things - really live for them, not just use them as distraction and refreshment around the edges of our work.  For Christians and for churches, I think it means resisting the encroachment of technique in the Church.  We are not there to be efficient, or to utilise people, or to complete the plan, but to know and enjoy the living God.

And that is revolutionary.


  1. Hannah London1:10 pm

    Thanks for this, and for the following one referencing Jacques Ellul. Interesting and useful paradigm.
    Also encouraging to see the last two sentences in particular from one of our elders :)