Everybody knows Adorno’s famous phrase that there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz. But why did nobody ever say that there could be no more engineering after Auschwitz? After all, the camp produced methane gas, not alexandrines.
Of course, the reason is simple. We can’t do without the methane. Verses, in the popular mind, are for teenagers and losers. But underneath all the systems – socialist, fascist, communist – we need something to make the methane. We need something to make the engines. We need more roads. We need plastic, and we need low fat foods. We need hardware, and we need software. We need the cities, and we need the planes and bombs to bomb the cities. At this cold level, at the bottom of the artificial paradise, nobody is going to take giving up engineering seriously. It might lead to mass death, but who can imagine living without it? It is possible that the largest negative externality the planet has ever seen – the CO2 that, year by year, is bringing us close to the end of the Holocene – comes from engineering. But whether it is Auschwitz or global warming, we cannot question the engineering.
I’ve been reading Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire. It is a history that confronts one with Hitler’s most successful idea: a war state in which the population is shielded from war. This, at least, was the plan. Hitler saw the blockade of 1914-1918 as the key to the Allied victory, and the downfall of the Kaiser, and he did not want that repeated. Hitler’s great drive was to immunize the Germans. This drive even worked under the extermination camps – for dead people don’t eat. One of the great Nazi diktat in the 1940-1942 period was to keep the nutritional level of the population up, by all means necessary. This meant a vast program of expropriation in the East, and, to a lesser extent, in the West.
However, the Hitlerian system was hexed by its own striving for totality. Seeking both a racially pure German and a war state that would master Europe, Hitler’s machine inevitably began to seek out labor for the factories, and soon flooded Germany with more foreigners than it had ever held before. Having seized Poland and planned on making it a vast extension of the Reich, Hitler’s men soon found that Germans did not want to colonize the eastern front – which meant, of course, that the “subhuman” slav population of Greater Germany spiked up. In this political sense, Popper’s Open society is certainly right – the price of the triumph of a total social system is its rapid decay and defeat. The limits are crossed in a delirium, the limits aren’t even seen. But they are there, nonetheless. The engineering underneath just brings you closer and closer to them.
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