Free the Slaves

Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything. ~ Bruce Springsteen, ' Badlands '

Certainly you and I have much to worry and complain and gripe about concerning government, and in particular the one we call the United States: it lies, it cheats, it steals. It kills both at home and, increasingly, abroad. But after we realize the problems, we have to look for answers. And my thinking keeps returning again and again to the question of Power ' perhaps the American government continues to seek more and more Power in the world because the American people continue to do the very same thing.

As 21st Century Americans, we can in mere hours travel distances that, for thousands of years or more, would have taken men days, weeks, or even months. We can speak instantaneously to people all over the planet, no matter where they are, or see and hear people and events as they happen. We can, with the simple flip of a switch or push of a button, increase or decrease the amount of heat and light in a room. We even have machines that wash our clothes and our dishes. In short, each of us commands ' and takes almost totally for granted ' Power that even a hundred years ago was unattained by kings and unimagined by wise men.

Because we can do all these things alone, by ourselves, we think that it's our Power, that we each individually possess it. But that's a misconception. It's a self-deception. We have that Power only because we're all connected to the Grid, and it's the Grid that infuses us with this Power.

And a great deal of Power it is, too. According to Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies by David Nye, the United States has the highest per capita energy use in the world: 40% more than Germany , twice as much as Sweden , three times that of Italy or Japan . Although in 1988 Americans represented only 5% of the world's population, they used 25% of the world's oil (p. 6). Nye quotes Ian G. Simmons as saying in his book Changing the Face of the Earth that America's high energy use means that 'each citizen of the USA becomes the possessor of the equivalent of some 73 quite well-fed slaves' (p. 212).

Interestingly, Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, used the same 'slave' imagery in his book Energy and Equity, published in 1974 during the energy crisis of the Seventies. The very term 'energy crisis,' he wrote (and I quote here at length):

'safeguards the illusion that that machine power can indefinitely take the place of manpower. To resolve this contradiction and dispel this illusion, it is urgent to clarify the reality that the language of crisis obscures: high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.

'The advocates of an energy crisis believe in and continue to propagate a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command. This belief is common to the conflicting economic ideologies now in vogue. It is threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

'The energy policies adopted during the current decade will determine the range and character of social relationships a society will be able to enjoy by the year 2000. A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of life-styles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist' (p. 3-4).

Most Greens, many Democrats, and even some Republicans would argue that to solve any potential energy problems, to make sure that the Power stays on and the Grid stays functional and intact ' to ensure the availability and viability of our energy slaves ' the government must manage the situation, must write, pass, and strictly enforce laws and rules and guidelines concerning fuel and technology and its uses. Illich says that this 'necessarily impli(es) huge public expenditures and increased social control' and that it 'rationalize(s) the emergence of a computerized Leviathan.' But there is another option that, he said, 'is barely noticed.' People, he wrote, 'do not yet think about the use of minimum feasible power' (p. 5)

We've all heard the famous statement of Lord Acton's that 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Illich added that 'beyond a certain threshold, mechanical power corrupts.' The massive use of energy, he said, 'acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving. A community can choose between Methadone and 'cold turkey' ' between maintaining its addiction to alien energy and kicking it in painful cramps ' but no society can have a population that is at once autonomously active and hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves' (p. 6).

These 'energy slaves' ' what I have called Power ' come to us through the Grid: that network of pipes and wire and cables and pavement that binds us one to another and literally empowers us. Without that Grid, however, the slaves disappear. The Power vanishes, and with it modern civilization: Witness New York City in the summer of 1977, when the Grid failed, the Power went out, and the energy slaves disappeared. What the Grid needs, what it craves, to stay functional ' what it needs to distribute all this Power, all these slaves, to so many people ' is efficiency. And what gives the Grid the efficiency it needs is the Power and the authority of the State.

Take just one example: when I was a boy, it took us 3 '-4 hours to drive the 120 miles to my grandparents' cabin on Lake Ontario. We took NYS Route 11 north through Marathon and Cortland. It became Salina Street as it took us slowly through downtown Syracuse. Eventually we reached Pulaski and I knew we'd be there soon. Now, I could cover the same trip in a little over two hours because the State has made the Grid ' in this case, the automotive part of the Grid that we call highways ' more efficient. In the mid- and late Sixties the State built Interstate 81, partly by using its power to tax and partly by using its power of eminent domain to seize land it could not simply buy. Without eminent domain, for example, just one landowner could have thwarted the entire system, either by preventing it completely or by causing a variation, a curve, that could make the road less efficient. Just compare the fast, straight, efficient Interstates of upstate New York with the slow, meandering, inefficient roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Could a free marketplace have built such fast and efficient roads? Perhaps. But I think they'd be more like those in Lancaster County. I doubt that I'd be able to reach Lake Ontario in about two hours. I think about the little walk I took today during our class break (summer classes run 2 ' hours, so a break is pretty necessary!). The State is altering the main entrance to campus and moving its traffic light so that it aligns with the entrance to the credit union across the street and creates a better, more efficient traffic flow. If all these interests ' the college, the credit union, the road construction crew, the owners of the road, the electric company, the company that times and maintains the street lights to maintain maximum efficiency on the streets ' if these were all private, what are the chances that they would agree? If they could, how long would it take them to come to this agreement?

We like to think ' we want to think ' that under private management, in a free market, everything would work just as if not more smoothly, more efficiently, as under State control, but as far as I can see that's purely theoretical. Perhaps under a truly free market the automobile industry would never have taken off the way it did because without roads, without a network of highways ' without the Grid ' what good are cars? Agreement often comes more quickly through coercion than through persuasion. Freedom is messy. Freedom is quirky, eccentric, idiosyncratic. Freedom is in many ways the antithesis of efficient. The Grid has no room for idiosyncrasies. It needs the State. Mussolini, as we know, made the trains run on time.

It's this Grid that enables us to have the Power we crave ' the Power we think we must have. We want it to be efficient. We need it to be efficient. It provides us those energy slaves that do so much work for us ' work we refuse to do for ourselves. And we want more all the time: bigger, faster cars; bigger TV screens; more entertainment; more food; more money; more excitement. More electricity. More money. More Power. And it's become unchecked. At one time, people had an internal self-governor. They had a conscience. They had a concept of God. They had character, morals, a sense of honor and of right and wrong. But all that's gone now. Character, honor, and morality are outmoded ideas, mere relics of another time. And we're left with an aching emptiness in our souls that we desperately fill with speed, with sex, with food, with thrills, with noise ' with Power.

It only stands to reason, then, that if we are such people ' and we are ' then the government we create, the government which stems from our wants and our desires, would reflect those qualities. We are a greedy, desperate, soul-less people who seek Power over everything. Why then do we wonder that the government seeks the same thing?

Complaining about the State certainly has its place. We must continue to point out its lies, its hypocrisy, its iniquity. But that isn't enough; it can't be. We also have to do something about it. In Energy and Equity, Illich wrote that we 'must reject the fatal image of man the slaveholder currently promoted by an ideologically stimulated hunger for more energy' (p. 9). To reduce the State's hunger for Power, each of us must reduce our own. We must lessen our dependence on the Grid. We must, as Gandhi said, 'be the change that you want to see in the world.'

We must free our slaves.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.