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Potential, Power and Enduring Problems – Anarchism and the Critique of Technology

What follows is the introductory section of an article titled “Potential, Power and Enduring Problems – Reassembling the Anarchist Critique of Technology” which I wrote for the journal Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies. The article considers the way in which the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker, and Murray Bookchin (as well as Lewis Mumford) regarding technology and society form a coherent critique of technology from an anarchist perspective. The issue has recently been published, and therefore I am now posting the article here. To access the issue (where the article can be downloaded [and read] in full) you can click on this link.

Note: as some of the links to ADCS seem not to be consistently working you can also download the full pdf right here (by clicking on this link).

Without any further ado…

Faith in technological progress has provided a powerful well of optimism from which ideologies as disparate as Marxism and neoliberal capitalism have continually drawn. Indeed, the variety of machines and techniques that are grouped together under the heading “technology” often come to symbolize the tools, both literally and figuratively, which a society uses to construct a modern, better, world. That technologically enhanced modern societies remain rife with inequity and oppression, while leaving a trail of toxic e-waste in their wake, is treated as an acceptable tradeoff for progress – while assurances are given that technological solutions will soon appear to solve the aforementioned troubles. Beyond the capitalist embrace of technology, the reactionary lust for technological power, or the techno-utopian longings of some forms of socialism – there is a current in anarchist thought that has consistently advanced a contrary approach to technology. It is not a view that eagerly embraces or hastily rejects technology, as such, but instead recognize that certain types of technology carry within them the kernels of particular forms of social relations – certain forms of modernity – regardless of whether a machine is run by a capitalist, a nationalist state, or a workers state.

While it would be quite difficult, or potentially impossible, to identify a single anarchist philosophy of technology a through line can be traced across the works of Peter Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker and Murray Bookchin that provides a sturdy framework for an anarchist analysis of technology. These thinkers connect their broader critiques of power, control and hierarchy to the way that particular technologies may reify these imbalances – while still remaining aware of technology’s liberating potential. This critical engagement with technology is a vital, if overlooked, aspect of these particular anarchists’ thought and represents an element in anarchist theory that is further developed by the likes of Colin Ward, Paul Goodman and Herbert Read. Furthermore, the anarchist approach to technology characterized by Kropotkin, Rocker and Bookchin simultaneously echoes and is echoed by prominent thinkers associated with the broader critique of technology – notably Lewis Mumford who, arguably, appears within a broader constellation of anarchist or left-libertarian thought.

Though, it is certainly the case, that Peter Kropotkin never used a smart phone – the approach to technology developed by these anarchist thinkers remains vital today. For, even if these thinkers would be astounded by certain contemporary technologies they would be all too unsurprised by the way today’s technologies still drive profits to the wealthy, exacerbate governmental surveillance, and mutilate the planet. The historian Judy Wajcman has written that “our common sense notion of ‘modern’ denotes a historical process of steady advance and improvement in human material well-being, occasioned by technological innovation”[1] – the critique that is visible in the particular anarchist current being reassembled in this paper recognizes that the potential for “advance and improvement” is not inherent in technology itself. Indeed, modern “technological innovation” can regress and harm human well-being just as easily as it can help improve it. Therefore, reassembling this anarchist critique of technology is not undertaken because “we hardly dare to think” and thus “we consult musty books a hundred years old, to know what ancient masters thought on the subject,”[2] but because this anarchist analysis is still effective for questioning ideas of modernity, scientific progress, and technology’s role in society.

Alas, too often it seems that what “we hardly dare to think” about is the way that new technology often reinforces old power and advances a vision of modernity where machinery is used primarily to enrich the few instead of provide for the many.

The rest of the article awaits you…

Or you can just download the full pdf here…

Works Cited (thus far)

[1] Judy Wajcman. Pressed for Time. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). 44.

[2] Peter Kropotkin. The Conquest of Bread (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), 238.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on “Potential, Power and Enduring Problems – Anarchism and the Critique of Technology

  1. thx for share

  2. Mark Leier
    February 8, 2016

    I liked this a lot! Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Is Internet access a choice? | LibrarianShipwreck

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