Mechanization, Monoculture, and Social Ecology

Alan Jacobs, writing at the Hedgehog Review, draws an analogy between biological ecology and social ecology. Reflecting on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s account of his visits to Caribbean rum distilleries and on Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, Jacobs promulgates several theses:

  • All illiberalisms are instrinsically mechanistic.

Jacobs’s example of biological mechanization uses Giedion to interpret Lévi-Strauss: “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.”

Analogously, it is the goal of all illiberalisms “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.

Jacobs next makes use of a historical analogue: the Albigensian crusade. If the churchmen of that day—the illiberal mechanizers in Jacobs’s analogy—had succeeded in suppressing what they regarded as dangerously wrong ideas, “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.”

Jacobs next turns to Oliver Rackham’s account in Woodlands of the deforestation of British landscapes and their replacement with plantations: “filling the land with a single species of tree deemed to be useful.” Here deforestation and the use of plantations is the example of mechanizing control. But such plantations rarely work because “like philosophers and theologians, trees need highly diverse, complex ecosystems in order to thrive.” These reflections lead Jacobs to two further theses:

  • Mechanistic illiberalism seeks to create a monoculture.
  • Any attempt to create a monoculture is necessarily self-defeating.

Finally, Jacobs summarizes Rackham’s account of the surprising result of deforestation and plantations: Often, the planted trees declined and native trees returned. “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.” This leads Jacobs to a final thesis:

  • Complex, organic ecosystems—whether biological or social—are far harder to kill off than the mechanized makers of monocultures think.

I am grateful to Prof. Jacobs for this ecological perspective on culture. His essay has helped me formulate several thoughts and questions, which I aim to pursue in subsequent posts.

  1. What definition of “illiberalism” applies here? And what is its opposite? Initial thoughts: “Illiberalism,” as its name implies, must involve the absence or privation of “freedom” (libertas) in some sense, i.e. the kind of freedom that, in the case of rum distilleries, promotes more “wildly organic” and “ecologically diverse” conditions: the kind of freedom which mechanization’s command necessarily suppresses.
  2. But it seems that Jacobs does not intend his analogy to imply that “liberalism” or “mere liberalism” should correspond to the proper, ecologically responsible, attitude towards human culture.
  3. This makes me wonder if a three-fold distinction, of excess, defect, and virtuous mean, could apply to Jacobs’s examples: i. Illiberalism is the excess. ii. Liberalism is the defect. iii. Something like what the Greeks and Romans meant by “paideia” and “humanitas” or like what Wendel Berry means by the Kingdom of God would be the virtuous mean. Since illiberalism is “inhuman,” is the right, ecologically responsible, approach to culture a kind of humanism?
  4. A further thought closely tied to 3. and 1.: A synonym for the Latin ideal of humanitas is liberalitas, which shares the same root as libertas (“freedom”) but has more to do with freeness in giving—i.e. generosity—rather than freedom from constraint.
  5. How does all of this relate to Jacobs’s larger recent project which he calls “Invitation and Repair“? Specifically, how can invitation and repair counteract the malign effects of illiberalism?
  6. Finally, how should we understand Jacobs’s critique of illiberalism in relation to the call for an “illiberalism of the weak” made recently by Leah Libresco Sargeant? LLS and Jacobs seem to share many values and goals, but their terminology seems not to align completely.

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