For many years now, technology enthusiasts have asserted that new technological tools – both analog and digital – have largely played a positive role in advancing progress. In his Decadence of Industrial Democracies: Disbelief and Discredit, Bernard Stiegler challenges this view by providing a detailed account of the way in which technical reproduction has historically changed and continues to change our lives in the broader framework of capitalism, by disentangling culture and strangling the process of collective individuation. Originally published in 2004 in French, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies has been translated into English in 2011 by Daniel Ross and Suzanne Arnold. It is part of a 3-volume series, with the other two books appearing - in French - in 2006. The first book of the series, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies: Disbelief and Discredit, is divided into four parts: (1) Decadence, (2) Belief and Politics, (3) The Otium of the People, and (4) Wanting to Believe, which follow the argument of the book and conclude by calling for ‘a new model of industrial development and new cultural practices’ (p. 15).
The volume opens with the critique of the American industrial model - built on consumerism, and based on the control of culture - at the start of the 20th century. According to Stiegler, this represents a turning point as culture became ‘a strategic function of industrial activity’ (p. 4), propagating from the US to Europe and beyond as transmission technologies continued to develop. The new technological tools furthering a digitalisation process helped in spreading the trend across the globe and in creating the contemporary ‘information society’. This evolution culminated with the birth of the internet in America, fostering the US-led cooperation between the public and the private sector in promoting consumerism and transforming culture in the very agent of control exercised over the masses. Radio and television, together with newer digital technologies, evolved towards bringing uniformity and standardising consumer behaviour among viewers, thus making Stiegler pessimistically affirm that ‘there is no longer any belief in nor possibility of a pursuit of individuation’ (p. 96).
The new technological means have also strengthened performative acts, while supporting the idea that public power has become obsolete. In this context, the author warns against creating political decadence performatively by reducing the concept of trust to a mere political calculation in a control society model. Stiegler’s main thesis revolves around the idea that the so-called ‘grammatology’ of new technologies lead to a degradation of culture, as capitalism ‘expresses a totalitarian tendency to reduce everything to calculation’ (p. 49). The process of ‘grammatisation’ – a term borrowed from Derrida – represents the system of techniques employed by societies in order to constitute their collective individuation. The latter is done through cultural memory, which can be further elaborated based on its characteristic modes of retention. Stiegler distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary modes of retention, linked to three different aspects: the passage of time, memory itself and the externalisation of memory though culture and technology. As consumerism expanded, the process of ‘grammatisation’ moved away from individuation towards rationalising leisure time activities, thus turning technological tools and culture into means of control.
In the second part of the book, the author calls for a global debate for ‘the enormous problems of mental environments that are in disequilibrium and that create disequilibrium’ (p. 22). The problems identified stem from a distinction he makes between existence, characterised by otium, and subsistence, deriving from negotium. Otium represents the ‘cult of the absoluteness of the singularity of existence’ (p.86), whereas negotium is a rationalisation of all layers of existence. In line with the inner logic of negotium, the proliferation of credits to consumers puts a price on the lifetime existence of the individual. With the continuous push towards commercialising and branding everything, globalisation is not more than ‘generalised mimetism’ and the world had become ‘un-world’, as it is no longer capable of individuation.
However, Stiegler’s view is not entirely pessimistic, as he believes there is a solution to dismantle the web of intricacies creating the current situation. He envisions a reformation of capitalism, which could be based on a cultural ‘jumpstart’ (‘sursaut’) connected to a collective individuation process. For a future that does not match a negative scenario, Europe must conceive a new industrial model based on alternative modes of existence, as opposed to subsistence only. As Stiegler sees it, the way out of decadence is a jumpstart in the direction of politics that are no longer industrial only, but also cultural.
The book is dense and explores, to a large extent, the main concepts developed by Stiegler in his previous books. This can pose a certain difficulty to the first-time readers of Stiegler. Moreover, his perspective is derived from a Western-centered understanding of the world, with brief inferences that the other parts of the world were following extensively the predominant social model(s) of the US and Europe. The positioning of Western Europe at the core of the book – in a direct comparison with North America only – overlooks the distinct development of the Eastern part of the continent, where the trends of collective individuation went through a series of inner-looking transformations, that have by and large weakened the potential of a Europe-wide individuation.
Globally, the book offers a critical analysis of the way in which decadence has entered industrial societies and continues to erode them internally. While condemning the dominance of consumerism and the instrumental use of technologies for furthering control over societies, Stiegler singles out a possible alternative model based on a redirection of capitalism towards prioritising culture. While this requires a systemic change, it might also depend on the ability of the individual readers of the book to take on the challenge of rediscovering the meaning of otium and finally, of appraising the true value of culture.