Accidents in Ideological Machines

“Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident”[1]. The invention of the car is the invention of the car crash. The invention of nuclear fission is the invention of Chernobyl or Fukushima. The invention of the internet is the invention of an interconnected fragility and an overreliance. Every technology intends its collapse and its breakpoints. This technological accidentology isn’t only applicable to the machinic technologies of life. It can also be seen in the ideological technologies of hegemonic social forces and their counterparts.

How do we conceptualise ideology as a technology? Mumford’s definition of the machine is helpful: “a complex of non-organic agents for converting energy, for performing work, for enlarging the mechanical or sensory capacities of the human body, or for reducing to a measurable order and regularity the processes of life”[2]. Contrasting it with the tool, the machine is an agent of automaticity, simplifying processes and specialising tasks. This also then defines the predominant societal organisation as different social forces (with different underlying technics) conflict and cooperate, equilibrating and entropising as external forces and internal mechanisms erode the mechanisms of trust and governmentality. “The various elements in a civilization are never in complete equilibrium: there is always a tug and pull of forces, and in particular, there are changes in the pressure exerted by the life-destroying functions and life-conserving ones”[3]. Neolithic lifeways were dominated by the telos of the pastoralist or primitive agriculturalist. They were defined by spatial complexes and hierarchies for work, feasting, burial and funerary rites. These lifeways were overtaken and conquered by an external force of greater trade, which introduced the cash nexus as a means of exchange and status, and an internal force of greater hierarchic stratification, expanding a ruling class’s power through land enclosure and the exactment of tribute.

Ideology relates to this as a process of simplification, specification and processualisation that reflects (or refracts) the telos of the dominant social groupings. It converts the energy of dissipated social action into a singular focus, mechanising thought processes and providing a common heuristic. A herd mentality but caught within a Gramscian bind of wars of position both internally and externally fought. Going back to the example of the Neolithic pastoralist society, an internal dynamic of greater stratification was borne of new ideological positions that proved a stronger means of social action, with these positions emerging from and merging with new technological efficiencies and standards. Thus, the development in the mid-to-late Neolithic of more complex funerary practices and architectures.

As Mumford’s technics show the evolution of technological capacity and the concomitant change of social structure, the vectors for ideological change and conflict also evolve. The movement from the eotechnic to the paleotechnic instantiated new organisational ecologies previously unthinkable. The move from the village-industrial complexes concentrated around waterways and agricultural markets to the industrial behemoths of the Industrial Revolution moved prevailing socio-economic logic from that of localisation/regionalisation to concentration and national/international power. It also changed the ideological possibilities as new classes emerged and old ones became superfluous. The power of the yeoman or the smallholder slowly diminished as the working class and the bourgeoisie became the vectors for ideological action. There is no Marx without an industrial proletariat and no Weber without a concentrated bureaucratic structure.

And as with machinic technology, ideological technology produces the necessitation of its accident, its own potential for collapse. Nietzsche notes this in the dialectical relation of morality and immorality. The former innately inculcates and requires the latter, but in the act of moralisation tends to assume a totality that attempts at eradicating immorality. “Morality gradually comes to contradict itself”[4] as it interacts with the reality of life. Its demands of absolutism conflict with those of truthfulness, contradicting passions and subverting virtues by producing an unmeetable standard. Thus, the production of decadence, of a religiosity undergirded by the very behaviours and structures it deems sinful. One that denies nature and life but by necessity must allow their continuance, producing either greater scepticism or decadence, the phenomenon of decay or rot as the accidents of ideological absolutism.

Virilio notes a similar accidentology in the means of warfare. The evolution from the battlefields of regimented warfare to the battlespaces of non-contiguous, unit-based warfare created the potential for these centrally directed units to be undermined by guerrilla warfare tactics and 4th generation warfare. The battlespace produced the means for the terrorist group or militia. In other words, the ideology of centralisation (through the Pentagon) produced the ideologies of decentralisation and stigmergy.

At the level of politics this ideological accidentology is seen in the liberal hegemony of the 20th and 21st centuries becoming ossified and decadent. It produced the reactions of national populism, of a new xenopolitics due to its arrogance coming from its settled position. An economic hegemony of transnational class interests, trade agreements, lobbying and technocratic governance became so disconnected as to have blind spots through which alternative ideological means could emerge. Equally, the emergence of a Giddensian life politics that superseded a Schmittian politics contained the seeds for conflict to re-emerge. A life politics of desire is in many ways similar to a religiosity of moral absolutism. There is no other through which to compare or conflict, leading to decadence. New enemies are found, and new grievances aired. A politics of desire filtered through a consumer-denizenship has produced a reconditioning of the friend-enemy dichotomy in favour of a patchwork concept of relations. One of general contestability rather than either a social contract or an outward-looking xenopolitics.

As technologies tend toward automaticity, ideologies tend toward absolutism and winning the war of position. As Adam Lovasz noted in relation human-technology relations[5], humans are an irritant bound to be error-prone and deficient in the face of technological perfectibility. Such could be seen in the Project Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, where “various retailers and distribution centers were already organized into associations called Gremios, many of which owned small trucking fleets”[6], creating an ideological bulwark of small business populism against a techno-socialist project. There are always accidents and openings through which opposition coheres in all ideologies and technologies. There are always Gremios that disrupt and dissipate totality or centrality.

Taking into consideration De Angelis’s idea of the fractal panopticon as the ideological technology of governmentality that undergirds neoliberal hegemony, similar dynamics are possible. “If, following Bentham, we regard panopticism as a modality of power that rests on the principle of ‘seeing without being seen’ , made possible by a flow of information that turns real subjects and activities into data, shadowy projections of real subjects, then, combining these principles of panopticism with its property of modularisation and Hayek’s characterisation of the market as the coordinating mechanism of the action of private individuals, we can understand the rationale of the neoliberal project as one aiming at the construction of a system of interrelated virtual ‘inspection houses’, which we may call the ‘fractal panopticon’”[7].

The centrality of the inspection house is both the locus of power and its downfall. No technology is unassailable. Instead they exist in stacks through which subversion exists variably, depending upon the stack considered. Reverting to simpler or alternative technologies can provide a means of partial exit. Thinking back to the Gremios, they only disrupted elements of the Chilean supply chain, but did enough to augur an ideological bulwark that prevented the totalisation of a national system of logistics.

The fractal panopticon is a similarly stacked system. While it can quantify certain elements through which it extends control, there are others outside of its grasp, both internal and external. Internally, the emergence of platform-based organisations presents a new method of control, as the data flows of consumers, producers and suppliers are aggregated into one structure, providing a level of monopolistic control greater than some governments. “Platforms have emerged as powerful corporate actors that have seized upon market dynamics and market failures. They are often positioned as an alternative to state-run coordination, as a means for preventing centralized state powers and perceived incapacities. The platforms well-known today have gained tremendous power by making things like communications, transportation, information, exchanges more immediate and accessible and flexible, expanding the range of actors that can contribute to the provision of a service in real-time. Peer-to-peer platforms like Uber and Airbnb or social media platforms link convenience, desire, access and connectivity with unparalleled ease and immediacy. But even when platforms are run for a profit, the services they provide mobilize the public at large. Platforms provide critical, ‘foundational’ services, and in doing so, become utilities serving common needs”[8].

However, it also presents the means of alterity as its accident points grow. “The various market and governmental competitors as well as the regulatory holds of data law and competition policy mean that Amazon-as-governance presents a variety of exit rights/opportunities that state-based mechanisms currently don’t provide. With the thickening of governance relations amongst many fragments and tangents, the various international, municipal and local competitors that platforms like Amazon will face mean that the brittleness traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have shown in the face of e-commerce dominance will begin to chip away at those platform’s governance/market positions, eroding the bases and requiring constant adaptation and manoeuvre as platforms develop their own brittleness. In particular data laws pose a systemic risk that is increasingly fragile, particularly as GDPR pushes back at data institutions and further debates over the ownership of data question where the platform’s jurisdictional authority actually lies. The mechanisms of exit here are increasing, requiring an anti-fragility that Amazon and others may not have”[9].

Externally, the machinations of coronavirus present mechanisms for greater control (as per the Great Reset and the return of the state) as well as an undermining of that control as alternative powerbases flex their ideological muscles, as with the growth of regional government power in the face of national sclerosis and the bolstering of anti-globalisation movements. Here the fractal panopticon of global governance fragments, as different parts of its techno-ideological stack are attacked or compromised. Coronavirus doesn’t present a totalising challenge to whole of the stack, but a series of different challenges that re-contextualise each stack at its relevant level of scale. Like fighting each fire on each floor of a multi-story building individually.

The growth of technology portends the growth of accidents. The growth of totalising ideology portends the growth of its counter-movements and of its innate fragility in the face of internal and external challenges.

[1] Paul Virilio, Pure War

[2] Lewis Mumford, Technics & Civilization

[3] Lewis Mumford, Technics & Civilization

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power



[7] Massimo De Angelis, The Beginning of History



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