Berry, Ellul, and determinism

Technology and determinism.

I’ve been reading some Jaque Ellul and also just cracked open Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America last night. I’ve only gotten a little ways into each, but I was struck at how both of them see the introduction of technology as absolutely, unavoidably, leading from one thing to the next. It can’t be stopped. He quotes at length from historian Bernard DeVoto and mixes in his own comments here:

“The first belt-knife given by a European roan Indian was a portent as great as the cloud that mushroomed over Hiroshima. . . . Instantly the man of 6000 B.C. was bound fast to a way of life that had developed seven and a half millennia beyond his own. He began to live better and he began to die.

The principal European trade goods were tools, cloth, weapons, ornaments, novelties, and alcohol. The sudden availability of these things produced a revolution that “affected every aspect of Indian life. The struggle for existence. . . became easier. Immemorial handicrafts grew obsolescent, then obsolete. Methods of hunting were transformed. So were methods and the purposes of war. As war became deadlier in purpose and armament a surplus of women developed, so that marriage customs changed and polygamy became common. The increased usefulness of women in the preparation of pelts worked to the same end. . . . Standards of wealth, prestige, and honor changed. The Indians acquired commercial values and developed business cults. They became more mobile. . . .

“In the sum it was cataclysmic. A culture was forced to change much faster than change could be adjusted to. All corruptions of culture produce breakdowns of morale, of communal integrity, and of personality, and this force was as strong as any other in the white man’s subjugation of the red man.”

He goes on to state part of his major thesis here:

I have quoted these sentences from Delfoto because, the obvious differences aside, he is so clearly describing a revolution that did not stop with the subjugation of the Indians, but went on to impose substantially the same catastrophe upon the small farms and the farm communities, upon the shops of small local tradesmen of all sorts, upon the workshops of independent craftsmen, and upon the households of citizens. It is a revolution that is still going on. The economy is still substantially that of the fur trade, still based on the same general kinds of commercial items: technology, weapons, ornaments, novelties, and drugs. The one great difference is that by now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water. Air remains the only necessity that the average user can still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on that by way of pollution. Commercial conquest is far more thorough and final than military defeat. The Indian became a redskin, not by loss in battle, but by accepting a dependence on traders that made necessities of industrial goods. This is not merely history. It is a parable.

Now Berry is (was) a farmer and a pastor and so he has a bone to pick with “commerce as religion”. Ellul was a French academic and philosopher and so he deals with a much more abstract idea of “technology” that is not necessarily evil. Nevertheless, in reading both of them I feel they are often talking about essentially the same thing.

I think the great challenge both of them present is “How are Christians, and the Christian Church going to redeem this sort of damage at the ground level when we are absolutely saturated in this technology and mammon culture ourselves?”