05-07-2016 | Rent Extraction
Under the economy of abundance, even on the limited scale so far established in the United States, the huge bribe held out -- of security, leisure, affluence -- unfortunately also carries with it an equally huge penalty: the prospect of universal parasitism. Earlier cultures have had skirmishes with this enemy: Odysseus' scouts among the Lotus Eaters were so beguiled by their honeyed fare and dreamy ease that they had to be rescued by force. More than one emperor or despot discovered their permissiveness in the form of sensual inducements and enticements might be even more effective than coercion in securing compliance. Once established, the parasite identifies himself with his host and seeks to further the host's prosperity. Since parasitism has been widely observed in the animal kingdom, we have sufficient data to make a shrewd guess about the ultimate human consequences.
Now megatechnics offers, in return for unquestioning acceptance, the gift of effortless life: a plethora of prefabricated goods, achieved with a minimum of physical activity, without painful conflicts or harsh sacrifices: life on the installment plan, as it were, yet with an unlimited credit cards, and with the final reckoning -- existential nausea and despair -- readable only in the fine print. If the favored human specimen is ready to give up a free-moving, self-reliant, autonomous existence, he may, by being permanently attached to his Leviathan host, receive many of the goods he was once forced to exert himself to secure, along with a large bonus of dazzling superfluities, to be consumed without selection or restriction -- but of course under the iron dictatorship of fashion.
If proof were needed of the real nature of electronic control, no less a promulger of the system than McLuhan has supplied it. "Electromagnetic technology," he observed in Understanding Media, "requires human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity which which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs." To make his point McLuhan is driven brazenly to deny the original office of tools and utensils as direct servants of human purpose. By the same kind of slippery falsification McLuhan would reinstate the compulsions of the Pyramid Age as a desirable feature of the totalitarian electronic complex.
The 'Big Bribe' turns out to be little more better than the kidnapper's candy. Such a parasitic existence as megatechnics offers would, in effect, be a return to the womb: now a collective womb. Fortunately, the mammalian embryo is the only parasite that proved capable of overcoming this condition once it has been established, the baby's birth cry triumphantly announces his escape.
But note: once a human being has left the womb, the conditions that were propitious to his growth become impediments. No mode of arresting development could be so effective as the effortless instant satisfaction of every need, every desire, every random impulse, by means of mechanical, electronic, or chemical equipment. All through the organic world development depends upon effort, interest, active participation: not least upon stimulating resistances, conflicts, inhibitions and delays. Even among rats, courtships precedes copulation.
Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power p. 338-340