The Ethos of Efficiency

The following piece is excerpted from a upcoming presentation I am doing on the Zeitgeist. In the presentation, I outline six categories: Technique, Deconstruction and Awareness, Alternatives, Despair, Ideologies and Longing. In this piece, I outline the first feature of the Zeitgeist, Technique. 

One of the most powerful features of the contemporary Zeitgeist is what I, following Jaques Ellul, will call “technique.” In this piece, I will be implicitly drawing from his work, but also adding my own insights. Essentially what I’m getting at with technique is what we could call “the ethic of efficiency.” What characterizes our society as a whole is that the value of efficiency–max gain for minimum effort–has been set over and against, and in fact, in direct opposition to, tradition, religion, humanity and nature. Let me give you an example of where I’m going with this.  So, a few years ago, a small town decided it needed to build a manufacturing shop, brand new, state of the arc. But where to build it? After some planning, the community settled on a location, the perfect spot, the prime location with only one drawback: it was directly over the community’s graveyard. Everything was planned out, there, by Mary’s grave, that’s where trucks can pull in. Over on the other side, at her father’s grave, there we can have the main entrance. Wonderful idea, but what to do with the graves? The community decided to exhume the graveyard, take out the corpses, move the tombstones, and take the corpses to the other side of the town, far away from future industrial projects, and create a new graveyard for the corpses there, just like the old one, better even! The town then proceeded to build the manufacturing shop where the graveyard used to be.

Now, I don’t know all of the details of this story, maybe the town had some other reasons for moving the graveyard, but it seems to be the prime example of the ethic of efficiency being valued over honouring the dead, respecting the graveyard and letting the dead, “rest in peace.” On this way of seeing the world, there are no sacred places, there are no beautiful things, there are no vulnerable ecosystems that can make any claim on the expansion of efficiency.

Technique sees reality, or the world as a machine. Why a machine? Well, think about it. A machine is logical, understandable, and, because it is those things, it is controllable, fixable and changeable, Now, in some ways, we can see how this could be a helpful way to describe reality, our success in science has shown that the world does actually have a rational structure or order that we can understand. By the same token, our incredible progress in technology has shown that we do have some degree of control over reality. However, when we take this idea that “Reality is a machine,” and apply it to all domains of life, when we start to think about everything in terms of machines, it gets pretty ugly. We get the idea that all domains of life can, and should be organized mechanistically—like cogs in a machines, logically and as effectively as possible to get the desired end—the product: what we want to extract from what we started with.

Let me give you two examples. The first example is how we have come to think about food production and especially with how we are treating our pigs, cows, and chickens. The ethic of efficiency has completely overtaken this industry as pigs, cows and chickens are treated like machines, rather than as animals. The goal is to maximize production of pork, beef and eggs, while minimizing the costs involved. Animals are pumped full of hormones to maximize growth, breed artificially to overcome the cost of captivity, and housed indoors in tiny cages and pens. The entire process, from birth to butchering is structured to maximize efficiency and growth rather than animal comfort and natural development.

So, if we treat our animals like machines, what about treating humans like machines? Well that’s where my second example comes in, the example of China. Many of you might be familiar with the Chinese Social Credit System. What’s happening there is that the government has created a system of social rewards and punishments for good behaviour. Essentially, they are using the technology of smartphones and the internet to watch and control their citizens. We can see the same machine logic going on here: the world—humans and nature—become nothing but resources to be exploited and shaped to fit the will of the totalitarian government. The Chinese have created a logical system to extract from the humans what they want—good behaviour and compliant citizens. The entire society is being structured like a machine, a logical, rational, efficient system, to which human machines must conform to become efficient cogs for the goals of the state.

It should be clear by now that this kind of machine thinking, is, to put it clearly and bluntly, anti-human and anti-nature. It is a progressive snuffing out of the Soul and Spirit and a progressive triumph of the machine. What doesn’t fit into the logical, rational system, what can’t be reduced to machine logic, is seen as less important or stupid. The value of things or activities is judged by how efficient, rational controllable or understandable they are. Or how efficiently it can produce a specified end. Or by how useful something is in achieving a rational goal. But think about what that leaves out! From our previous example, is a graveyard any of these things? Why take all the space? Why spend all the money? Why not just burn the corpses? What about a Church? Does the Church have a kind of rational purpose that efficiently produces a product? Is what we do inside the Church, worship, preaching and praying, understandable in those terms? To make the point even more sharply, what about the sick, the disabled or the elderly? How efficient are they? Aren’t they merely broken robots?

I should make myself clear here, these are all rhetorical questions that we shouldn’t even be trying to answer. There is something fundamentally wrong and I would even say, fundamentally evil, about judging graveyards, Churches or elderly people on their “usefulness.” But what happens when we do start to think of everything in those terms? When we want all of human life, like a machine, to be rational, understandable and efficient? Well, we get an anti-human world, a world that has squeezed the soul out of everything.

Two final examples. One of the clearest ways this machine thinking, this ethos of efficiency is expressed is within some forms of protestant Christianity. Take what’s been called the “Prosperity Gospel” as preached by individuals like Joel Olsteen. Essentially what the Prosperity Gospel says, is that God wants believers to be healthy, wealth and happy, and that how much faith one has can be seen by how prosperous one is. If you only believe in yourself and have faith, you will get what you ask for. In this conception, God has essentially become a cosmic slot machine. He’s understandable, logical, and more like a machine than a person. Belief in God becomes an efficient way to produce a specified end. Pull the lever—have faith—let the machine do its work, and reap the rewards. The Prosperity Gospel version of Christianity has completely given into the ethos of efficiency. It demands a logical God and a faith that makes sense, rather than Christianity. After all, what’s the point of Christianity if it calls us to suffering, to renouncing, to poverty, to shame, to paradox, to foolishness, and ultimately to the Cross—isn’t that just for losers?

Another example is the modern day Mega Church. The question that drives these churches is the question of how to increase church growth. How can we get as many butts into the pews as possible? How can we be more efficient in increasing the membership of our Church? I say ‘increasing the membership’ rather than ‘spreading the gospel’ because the way this is done is often more about numbers than about conversion. The answer to the aforementioned question is, “by any means necessary.” Propaganda and corporate advertising techniques are used to pull people in.  Superficial ‘Christian lyrics’ are added to popular music to make people feel spiritual. Churches church out slogans and gimmicks, kitsch and Christian pop culture, flat screens and flashing lights, coffee bars and hipster hats. The goal of efficiently increasing Church growth is prioritized over discipleship.

I could give many other examples of how this ethos of efficiency infuses not just religion, but also work environments, medicine, sports, food, manufacturing, farming and all other domains of life. Our modern world is one that is increasingly like MacDonald’s: artificial, removed from reality, consumerist, universal, fast, efficient, and nutrition-less. It is a world, a logic, that is intent on driving the Spirit from all things. It is ultimately as Jesus recognized, a battle between God and Mammon. I’ll leave you with a quote from Eberhard Arnold:

There is a god of godless, worldly religion, antagonistic to the life of Jesus: a god of the present era, hostile to god’s future.

The nature of this antigod is work without soul, business without love, machinery without spirit, lust instead of joy. It craves for possessions without mutual help, destroys competitors, and idolizes private property, obtained through fraud. It is a god of the present age, an interim god, this demonic force is at work even in the most religious places where devotion wears its most pious mask. We would not be able to understand the term mammon unless we knew the other names by which Jesus exposes this spirit. He calls it the “murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies,” and refers to its emissaries a “unclean spirits.” Mammonism is its nature, murder is its trade. Lying is its character, an impurity its face.

3 thoughts on “The Ethos of Efficiency

  1. Hey Julian,

    Great post!

    To open, I like that you identify this trend (perhaps we could say obsession) of “machinification” with technique, rather than with a state of affairs. I think that captures something about it that’s as interesting as it is damning. The immediate impulse is to think of it as an end – as a reality which is coming to fruition, in the world, because people have desired a world of mechanistic utility and efficiency for its own sake, and then set about actualizing it.

    But, it’s clear that most people don’t really desire such a world. That’s not to say most people don’t consciously desire efficiency, but most people don’t consciously desire radicalized, all-consuming, mechanistic efficiency. After all, they built the graveyard, and buried bodies there. They love and cherish their elderly, independent of their utilitarian value. They abhor animal cruelty and factory farming as ends, and (if you entrusted a animal to their care) would never, themselves, treat it the way they allow it to be treated by people whom they do business with.

    I think Arnold had a point in identifying mammon as a “spirit”. It’s murder “from the beginning”, mammonism “by nature”, and murder “by trade”. Nothing about goals, everything about technique, action, and fundamental characteristics.

    We’re talking about an obsession here – a sickness – a way of being – a terrible habit. It is, as you said, an “ethic”. It’s the manner in which we conduct ourselves, because we value the manner.

    For one, we’ve seen an “abstractification” of labor, and an economic trajectory that leaves us increasingly alienated from the fruits of our work. Among other factors, this has led to the widespread conception of work as a means to an end. This has coincided with the commodification of damn near everything, whereby everything of any type of value can be bought…and currency, for most of us, is just a representation of the time we’ve traded by means of our labor.

    So, we end up with a culture that wants to minimize work (since it’s only a means), and maximize currency or its equivalent (the stand-in for our ability to pursue things of value). Efficiency…in practice.

    But, of course, both sides of this equation are fundamentally flawed, leading to a result which is compounded in its flaws. What’s more, it, itself, doesn’t quite capture how we came upon such flawed conceptions in the first place. It can’t merely be pinned on a couple of mistakes of reasoning. This gets to the core of who we are, and how we imagine is the appropriate way to relate to the world.

    Michael Sandel had an interesting theory, not so much on the root of the problem, but on its manifestation (What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets). He recognizes a fundamental failure in society to engage with the question of value – especially to engage inter-personally with other members of society such that we can form a shared conception of value. He pins this partly on the nature of pluralism itself, but hints at the idea of a deeper failure. As a result of this failure, we default to the only conception of value we can agree on…the fiscal kind. As a result, all value tends toward the monetary, and the domain of morality tends toward the domain of the economic.

    Again, deeper question remains how we GOT here – or, if indeed, we’ve always been here, and it merely took the right set of contingent socio-historical circumstances to unleash this demented philosophy upon the world. I, like you, see an echo of Kierkegaard’s general critique of the cult of rationality and the failure to engage with the question of what is to be a self. The hyper-rationally-calculated, externally-obsessed, input/output mindset is a breeding ground for the environment we find ourselves in.

    I also like the connection you drew between this environment, and the megachurch (or perhaps even the modern church generally), large swaths of which could be called “church-as-product”. Commoditizing value is bad enough, but we’re not starting to commoditize ultimate value. That’s not just a threat to civilization, it’s a threat to our very conception of what it is to be human.


  2. Loved this article Julian. Excellent observations and article and your phrase “the ethic of efficiency” goes back to the root definitions of the two words which those who do not have a spiritual dimension in their worldview use interchangeably, but which allow “the ethic of efficiency” to be quietly introduced.

    My thoughts on the two words – When REASON refuses to consider the existence of a good and an evil ( a morality), it replaces the reasonable with the RATIONAL, and with it the means (the ability to reason), to discriminate, and removes the reason for discriminating in the first place.

    Others have said it this way –
    “It may be that a clear sense of the self can only crystallize around something transcendental in which case, our prospects look poor, for we are rightly committed to the rational.” [Rober Bolt]

    The Hebrew did not allow “Truth” to be merely scholastic or abstract, the individual had to “live” his daily, weekly and yearly life in his “Truth” or it could cost him his life. He believed that objective “Truth” must have two properties which gave it substance:-

    1. an intellectual dimension which was rational and had balance against that which was opposite or against

    2. It is rooted or grounded in history as an objective fact

    “This view of “Truth” demonstrates it’s objectivity in its contrast against its opposite. It excludes the possibility of the irrational or the false being “true”. This view also demonstrates its reality in the fact that because it is known and experienced objective “Truth” is knowable, it can be known.

    This is the deeper source of the saying from ancient Greek culture that “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” This self-justifying, rationalizing activity is a perverted expression of the natural role of mind in the human economy. Its natural role is to find the right way to act—the way that is just and right, and that leads to what is good. When the person as a whole is committed to doing what is wrong and evil, the mind turns from reason to rationalization. From establishing what is right in order to do it, it turns to establishing that whatever is done is “right” and “good,” or at least “necessary.” That is the madness”[.Dallas Willard]

    Liked by 1 person

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