End of the Megamachine
* Book: THE END OF THE MEGAMACHINE. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. by Fabian Scheidler. Zero Books, 2020.
The End of the Megamachine brings to light the roots of the destructive forces threatening the future of mankind today. Investigating five thousand years of human history, the book leads us to the very origins of economic, military and ideological power. The author retraces the prehistory and formation of the modern world-system, which has subjected man and nature to radical exploitation. Dismantling Western progress mythologies, Scheidler shows how the logics of endless capital accumulation have devastated both human societies and ecosystems from the outset – eventually culminating in a planetary crisis.
With the growing instability and looming collapse of the Megamachine in the 21st century however, new possibilities for systemic change open up. In the face of climate chaos, dwindling resources, financial breakdown, and mass poverty, the time has come for a profound transformation of our civilization.
The End of the Megamachine draws from a great variety of sources, ranging from anthropology, history and world-system analysis to chaos theory. It challenges patterns of thinking and creates surprising connections across time, space and intellectual traditions. The book has been published in German by Promedia (Vienna, Austria) in March 2015, comprising about 270 pages (ISBN 978-3-85371-384-6). It does not require any specialized knowledge and addresses a large audience interested in social and ecological change. It takes up the current debates about the limits to growth, global justice, and the future of democracy and puts them in a larger historical context. The combination of economic, cultural, and ecological perspectives in a large historical arc of narration makes The End of the Megamachine a unique book."
PART I: PRELUDE (THE 4 TYRANNIES)
1. POWER: The formation of military, economic, and ideological power in ancient history
2. METALS: The roots of the metallurgical complex and the concept of dominance over nature
3. MARKETS: The birth of coinage, early market systems and standing armies
4. POWERLESSNESS: Collective traumatization and the evolution of apocalyptic thinking
5. MISSION: The roots of Western universalism
PART II: THE MEGAMACHINE
6. MONSTERS: The formation of the modern world-system
7. MACHINE: Mechanistic science, the modern state, and the disciplining of man
8. MOLOCH: Coal power, global markets, and total wars
9. MASKS: The governance of the Megamachine and the fight for democracy
10. METAMORPHOSES: Resistance and limits to the system
11. POSSIBILITIES: Exit from the Megamachine
Chapter one points out that the power of people over people is a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, our ancestors were not able to assume command, neither over nature nor over other people, they were – willy-nilly – obliged to cooperate.
However, a significant change occurred in ancient Mesopotamia 5000 years ago when the first militarized city-states emerged (the first tyranny). The chapter narrates how a small class of leaders step by step managed to assume a certain amount of command over a majority.
Privatization of land ownership and increasing indebtedness paved the way to a concentration of economic power – the second tyranny. With the invention of writing, the first medium was created granting privileged access to knowledge and information to an elite – the foundation for ideological power (tyranny number three). With the consolidation of social power structures, imagination and cosmology radically changed as well: for the first time in human history, gods disposing of a royal household and absolute power appeared, imitating the image of earthly rulers. „Subdue the earth“ as the Book of Genesis puts it: The rule of God over creation became the model for the dominance of man over nature (the fourth tyranny).
The era of hubris – the fatal misapprehension that we are able to dominate nature – began.
The power over metals – and the threats that it poses – is a recurring motive in Western mythologies. But not only in myths and fantasy metals play a key role: Since antiquity, economical and military power was founded to a large extent on the control of gold, silver, copper, iron and today aluminum and uranium. The metallurgical complex is the origin of the arms industry: From the bronze axe to the aircraft carrier, it delivers the weapons indispensable to the creation of states and armies. The control of precious metals is a key to economic power, with coinage being at the root of all finance systems. Not least, metal mining is the prototype of all extractive industries, including the coal and oil industry – the most powerful and dirty industry on the planet. This chapter shows how war, ecological devastation, and monetary economy are inseparably interwoven in this complex, from antiquity to our own days. But the power of metals is rooted not only in our institutions but also in our minds: Through millennia, metallurgy has fed into a technocratic delusion of total feasibility. Its marks can be traced from medieval alchemy to the nuclear industry and to the fantasies of geo engineering.
Today markets are considered a kind of natural force. Whoever dares to oppose them will be wiped away. Markets, so the Darwinist logic goes, reward the brave and punish the weak – like nature itself. Markets are seen as the epitome of freedom where the homo economicus can thrive, unhindered by the chains of morals and the state. But are markets really as free and natural? Have they evolved, as common economic textbooks claim, from a „natural propensity of human beings to truck, barter and exchange“? The third chapter examines the development of economic power from antiquity until today. It exposes the common tale of the free and peaceful emergence of markets as a myth. Historical evidence shows that monetarized market economies were in fact closely tied to slavery, natural havoc and military expansion from their very beginnings. States are not, as often presented, the antagonists of markets, but their creators. Coinage and markets were not invented by people as a consequence of free barter trade, but by states to maintain their armies, in order to expand their empires. The mercenary was the first wage laborer. And one of the first merchandises to be traded on markets were human beings. The slave and the mercenary: human beings as recipients of orders and mere objects that can be disposed of mark the dawn of market economies.
History is usually written from the perspective of the victor, from the point of view of the powerful. In historical accounts, the fates of those who are crushed by the wheels of the war and business machineries usually remain invisible. This chapter takes a different point of view and elucidates the effects of the four tyrannies on communal life and collective imagination. With reference to sources from the Hebrew bible and the gospels, The End of the Megamachine relates how ancient societies were deeply traumatized. The extreme concentration of power based on monetarized economies and metallurgy finds its counterpart in the experience of powerlessness at the edges of the Empire where people were exposed to radical exploitation and violence. One type of response to these traumatic experiences was the emergence of apocalyptic thinking. The chapter tells the story of early apocalyptic prophets trying to compensate traumatic experiences by visions of divine revenge and the birth of a New World. But instead of abandoning the principle of power and dominance, they reproduce its logic. Especially the dream of a second creation, a „Heavenly Jerusalem“, will become formative for Western civilization. This motive resonates in the technocratic visions of artificial life as well as in the expectation of salvation in religious sects; in the communist idea of a „new man“ as well as in the capitalist vision of the „end of history“. Not coincidentally, the rectangular layouts of modern cities from LA to Shenzhen with their glass facades look like a materialization of the Heavenly City. But the downside of the City of Gold and Glass already appears in John’s Revelation: The „lake of burning sulfur“, designed for those who are not admitted to the Brave New World. The division of mankind into a selected few and a mass of castaways, as it is generated by the four tyrannies, is thus perpetuated and justified by apocalyptic thinking.
One of the key features of what we call “Western civilization” is its missionary zeal, its universalism, its claim for superiority, founded in the idea that the West (or Christianity) is playing a special role in a global salvific history. This narrative has outlasted all major historical shifts of the past 2000 years and remained a central pillar of ideological power until today. Western universalism has changed its garments several times, ranging from Christian mission to Enlightenment values and free market ideologies; its core, however, has remained the same: As the West is deemed to be the source of a superior religion or rationality, a superior social system, a superior technology and economy, it is bound to expand over the earth, while “heathen”, “uncivilized”, or “underdeveloped” cultures are to disappear. This chapter traces the history of universalist ideology, which has been pivotal in justifying colonial and neo-colonial expansion, from its roots in the writings of Apostle Paul to the first Crusades and early colonial expansion.
Chapter six explores the formation of the modern world-system – the Megamachine – at the dawn of the Modern Era. In schoolbooks, this era is presented as an age of light: finally mankind awakes from the superstition and serfdom of the middle ages; at last, a self-conscious individual enters the stage of history. However, reality looked quite different: the beginning of the Modern Era was above all an „age of fear“, marked by eschatological expectations, witch hunts and a war against the poor. What does this contrast between the two versions of history stem from? And what are the root causes of the collective paranoia afflicting Europe for centuries? The chapter reveals how the rise of early capitalism and the proliferation of firearms – the second revolution of the metallurgical complex –trigger off a new spiral of economic and military violence, forming the foundations of the modern world-system as it has spread over the earth since then. War, plague, hunger and expulsion lead to mass uprooting and traumatization in Europe, while the gold and silver rush in America is fueling the most severe genocide hitherto. The reader recognizes the „war of all against all“ – which Thomas Hobbes (mis)took for the natural state of man – as a mirror image of the brutal realities of Europe and its colonies. The blooming apocalyptic visions and radical utopian dreams in this era turn out to be responses to an unbearable present. Modern progress ideologies, rooted in this experience, prove to be an attempt to escape the terror in an endless flight forward.
Amidst the violence of the Early Modern Age, modern science was born. Some of its most prominent pioneers held the idea that nature is nothing but a machine that can be arbitrarily disassembled, manipulated and subjected to human ends. How has this idea – which became extremely influential in modern societies – evolved? Where did the godfathers of mechanist science like René Descartes and Francis Bacon draw their ideas from? The End of the Megamachine demonstrates that the concept of life as a machine is closely tied to the formation of modern state apparatuses in the very same era. In the newly formed standing armies, the bodies of the subjects were drilled and disciplined until they functioned as a huge machine. State bureaucracies, corporations and schools were organized according to similar principles. Human relations to nature followed the same pattern: Was nature not made to serve the aims of its masters? The machine eventually became the model for a society based on commanding and obedience – and on an unlimited exploitation of nature. On the eve of the French Revolution, militarism, economic exploitation and utilitarism merge into the vision of a mechanical society.
The industrial revolution – the third revolution of the metallurgical complex – finally created the means to make the vision of a mechanical society real. With the large-scale use of fossil coal as an energy source, a new geologic era began: the Anthropocene. Within only 200 years, man has deeply reshaped the Earth’s crust – and triggered off one of the biggest mass extinctions of species in the history of the planet. What has led to this dramatic development? Chapter seven explores how the logics of an endless accumulation of capital and a fossil energy system form an explosive amalgam from which our world today emerges. The consequences were brutal, not only for nature but also for societies: The mechanization of labor and the logics of competition and profit tore apart social networks and turned the worker into an object of global production logistics. As the result of this radical uprooting, two counter-movements emerged: on the one hand the labor movement, initially fighting against „wage slavery“ and mechanical work but later narrowing their focus on the control of the means of production; on the other hand the nationalist movements. State elites picked up and promoted the second type of movements in order to canalize rage and resistance of the uprooted people into the artificial identity of the nation state and eventually into the big wars. The metallurgical complex including the rising oil and chemical industries deliver the means for the first industrially conducted wars of extermination, sacrificing large parts of European and extra-European populations to the Moloch of the modern world-system.
Democracy is often considered a European invention, market economy and democracy are portrayed as twins. However, as chapter nine points out, the modern worldsystem and the logics of endless capital accumulation are structurally contradicting democratic self-organization. Moreover, the expansion of the Megamachine has destroyed local self-organization in Europe as well as in large parts of Africa, Asia and America. While popular movements have been striving for self-determination for centuries, “liberal democracy” was – starting with the US Constitution in 1787 – de facto designed as an oligarchical system, keeping the majority of the population – especially poor people, women, and people of color – out of the political process. As these limitations were severely challenged by revolutionary movements at the end of the 19th century and after World War I, the choices for system control became more radical, leading to modern concepts of a “guided democracy” (Walter Lippman) on the one hand and totalitarianism on the other hand. Facing economical and political turmoil which threatened the viability of the world-system, industrial and political leaders in continental Europe and Japan opted for fascism in order to keep the Megamachine running.
How have economic, military, and ideological power transformed themselves since World War II? Chapter ten deals with five major dynamics of this period: the economic boom of the “trente glorieuses” from 1945 to 1973 with the rise of consumerism and technocratic hubris; the anticolonial movements in the Global South with the violent reactions of the West and the traps of development policies; the “world revolution of 1968” shaking the political and ideological fundaments of the Megamachine; the “neoliberal” (in fact conservative) rollback since 1973, amounting to a global “corporate coup d’état in slow motion” (Chris Hedges) destabilizing societies around the world; and finally the economic, social, and ecological limits that the world-system is facing in the first half of the 21st century. This chapter argues that the combination of social, financial, and ecological crises on a planetary scale is about to lead into a hyper-complex, “chaotic” transformation that makes global governance impossible, eventually dismantling the global Megamachine. However, the outcomes of this process are inherently unpredictable. At the same time, the military machines continue to build up in order to defend the way of life and the property rights of the privileged.
What does it mean to break with the logics of the four tyrannies und to learn from the errors of failed utopian dreams in the 20th century? Chapter eleven points out that this learning process is already under way. In contrast to many of the former advocates of state socialism who countered the tyranny of markets with an extension of the other three tyrannies – militarism, ideological conformity, and technocracy –, ecological and social movements today aim at all four tyrannies. Protests against the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, large dams, genetic engineering, and other technocratic projects do not only challenge the power of states and market players but also the ideologies of growth and mastery of nature. Ranging from the Zapatistas, indigenous and landless movements in Latin America to Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, people all over the world are searching – sometimes successfully, sometimes helplessly – for new ways of democratic self-organization beyond the ossified and corrupted forms of representation. They do not only aim at political structures but at economic foundations as well: by reclaiming public goods and creating enterprises and banks dedicated to the common good instead of private profit; or by developing technologies focusing on cooperation with nature instead of dominance. However, all these approaches are facing a huge power complex constituted by fossil fuel corporations, banks, media corporations, and militarized states who seem determined to continue their path even at the cost of a devastated planet. The End of the Megamachine points out that the fight for a livable future cannot be won without confronting these power structures and the four tyrannies mirrored in our own minds."
"Fabian Scheidler, born in 1968, studied history and philosophy in Berlin and theatre directing in Frankfurt/M. He works and lives in Berlin as a writer for print media, television, theatre and opera. In 2009 he co-founded the independent newscast Kontext TV, producing a monthly broadcast on global justice issues; guests include Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva, Immanuel Wallerstein, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, Saskia Sassen, Maude Barlow, Silvia Federici and many others. Numerous lectures at conferences by Greenpeace, Attac, Deutsche Welle, Brot für die Welt, and Heinrich Böll Stiftung; publications, especially on issues related to the limits to growth, in books and journals, including the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik (edited by Saskia Sassen, Jürgen Habermas et al.). Otto Brenner Media Award for Critical Journalism (2009). As a dramaturge and playwright he worked for the world-renowned Grips Theater in Berlin for several years. In 2013, his opera „Death of a Banker“ (music: Andreas Kersting) was premiered at the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Theater in Görlitz (Germany)."
- Video interview with the author (in English): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_2hScMJj1I&t=251s Zero books interview
- A series of video talks with prominent guests, including Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva, highlights key aspects of the book:
- Part I: Vandana Shiva and Fabian Scheidler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2E3FNSz7xM
- Part II: Noam Chomsky and Fabian Scheidler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3wSTyHTG90&feature=youtu.be
The talks are moderated by Nermeen Shaikh. More videos are to be published in the coming weeks.
- There is also a short video introduction to the book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nsyvh-dse7k