Francis Bacon’s Ethic of Alienation
Theodore Roszak [Where the Wasteland Ends] points out that Bacon and others had “found a great truth: break faith with the environment, establish between yourself and it the alienative dichotomy called objectivity, and you will gain great power. Then nothing – no sense of fellowship or personal intimacy or strong belonging – will bar your access to the delicate mysteries of man and nature. Nothing will inhibit your ability to manipulate and exploit.” [p. 168, emphasis added]
This ethic is what made modern science possible and so powerful. But it can also explain our politics. That is, break the link between politics and the community and the result is a great advance of power for those ruling. How break that link? By way of government; that is, by way of creating institutions that turn citizens into “the governed” or, as is often said these days, into clients. By severing the link between politics and the community via government, “Nothing will inhibit [the] ability [or check the desire] to manipulate and exploit” the governed. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist: “The first task [in creating a government] is to enable the government to control the governed and then [oblige] that government to control itself.” The government controls the governed primarily by embracing this ethic of alienation. Government is, as Madison implied, all about control; that is, it is all about manipulation and exploitation. The more powerful the government, the more pervasive the manipulation and exploitation.
Within such an ethic, the governed become “mere things on which we exercise power. Between [those governing and us] there is no commerce of feelings, no exchange of sentiment or empathy. We [are known] only as … behavioral surface[s]….” Those governing “can remark coolly how interesting it is that [some] make sounds of protest, anguish, or despair….But [those governing, for the sake of objectivity should] make certain that their distress strikes no sympathetic cord – for….[the] project requires [those governing] to go no further than to record, to measure, to probe further, and to get on with the assigned job,” whether that job is educating human beings, incarcerating them, vaccinating them, or sending them to war. [pp. 168-69] This is what it means “to be realistic.”
And this ethic of alienation proves to be very useful in liberating human beings to use their power with “energy and dispatch,” as Hamilton recommended in the Federalist. As Roszak points out, this ethic is “an excellent device for dealing with ‘behavioral organisms’ not only under the researcher’s eye in the laboratory, but under the bombsights of the military, under the guns of Murder Incorporated.” And it should come as no surprise that those doing the bombing eventually find themselves not in planes but in what might be called laboratories from whence they launch killer drones at digital representations on a screen, representations that can’t even be labeled “behavioral surfaces.” The bomb is launched and, poof, those digital representations are gone. It’s like a magic show, a deadly, inhuman magic show. From these laboratories, guided by the ethic of alienation, our military can make whole villages disappear. After which, those responsible will record, measure, probe further, and get on with the assigned job.