The industrial religion of the West
by Pierre Musso
Industry is generally approached in a positivist fashion, as a fact, a phenomenon, a subject to be addressed by history, by sociology, by economics, engineering and so-called “industrial” policies. Industry is supposedly obvious, it can be seen in the factories to which it is often reduced. It is presented, whether in the form of a rupture, as the fruit of a scientific or technical “progress”, as the logical accomplishment of Homo faber or the Promethean myth. And yet, industry is something that has been imagined, made, manufactured even, in Europe, in the West, since the Middle Ages. It is not to be taken for granted, it is not self-evident, and a number of civilizations have done without it, beginning with Ancient Greece which favored contemplation over action. It is a choice, the result of a series of characteristic bifurcations of the Christian West and its vision of the world. We would argue, following on from Pierre Legendre, that industry has taken the place of a religion, or better still, that it is the fiduciary structure that holds the Western edifice together. It is the “industrial religion” of modernity that has been slowly forming since the 12th century. This industrial religion, this “secular religion” is the dogmatic architecture of the West.
Following a long period of underground gestation, it manifested itself in a startling manner within of the so called process of “industrialization” that has been occurring for over two centuries, and that has today been extended by the “managerial revolution”. We suggest the neologism “industriation” in order to define a long term, fictional and functional, material and intellectual process, different to that of “industrialization” which refers to a historical phenomenon. The industrial religion that was explicitly formulated at the beginning of the 19th century, echoing a phenomenon of industrialization is, strictly speaking, the form adopted by “industriation”.
No society can forego belief, divinities and their theatrical and normative staging. This is why they establish a dogmatic architecture – from dogma in Greek, that which appears, at the same time as both narrative and power – or what could be identified, according to Paul Valery, as a “fiduciary structure”. The theory of an industrial religion argues for “de-securalization”, in other words for the construction of a belief in a sacralized industry, and not in favor of the disappearance of religion, in the name of a supposedly secularized and “disenchanted” world. In fact, a shifting of the sacred has occurred, a transfer of sacredness, onto a “techno-science” applied to work and the “efficient” production of useful goods and objects.
Industrial religion has taken shape within the Christian heart of the West, like the combination of a faith in its greatest mystery, that of incarnation, and of a rationality and efficiency which is both functional and practical. Incarnation is the subject of the sacred and rationality the subject of measure. This combination was ushered in by the Gregorian revolution of the 11th and 12th centuries, the first Western revolution according to historian Harold Berman. The scaffolding of the overall fiduciary structure was thus established. A number of transformations occurred within this solid foundational structure of the industrialist narrative, with each one provoking revisions of the worldview of the time. These bifurcations took place over eight hundred years, for the sake of simplicity let us say from 1050 to 1850. This loop, spanning eight centuries, seems pertinent, as it runs from a founding scenario of a separation of temporal and spiritual powers, of Pope and of Emperor, to the positivist attempt at reunification which benefitted a unified industrial religion. This latter was formulated by the Saint-Simonian “church” in Nouveau christianisme, the title of the last work by Henri Saint-Simon in 1825. From a macro-event, a true upheaval that would lead to a separation of powers to a micro-event that would reunite them in the salons of Paris, industrial religion has been built and shaped in the wings of a great political and religious theater, a subject of discourses around “secularization” and the western world.
The fiduciary edifice of the West holds, and is held only by its secular religion with its scientific, industrial and economic basis. This secular religion was patiently built up in the backrooms of the political scene, fighting for its own autonomy with regard to religion. This religion developed in the silence of monasteries, in the half-light of mills and behind the smoke bellowing from factories, now emerging into the daylight in the era of the triumph of the Company and of universal management.
This industrialist religion which developed in places of work and production asserts a Faith and a techno-rationality which are threaded throughout various sedimented transformations within a similar architectural framework, and which are the result of a number of significant bifurcations that have taken place since the Middle Ages. In the industrialist religion, technical rationality, both powerful and efficient, is supported by a founding belief, namely incarnation, the nodal mystery of Christianity that has become a myth. Industry “incarnates” ideas in the form of projects and objects, it projects out the internal genius of the ingenium into the world.
Throughout its long genealogy, industrial faith has circulated in the three major forms of incarnation found in the West, three large “Bodies” – Christ/Nature/Humanity. At the same time normative-rationality has been enriched by technology, science and economics. The institution which brings them together, which acts as a kind of glue, was born in the monastery-workshop, was developed in the mills and triumphed in the factory-company. These are the markers of the three bifurcations which constitute the genealogy of industrial religion: three great forms of the sacred mystery of incarnation, three modes of rationality/normativity and three mediating institutions, which bind two elements, mystery and reason, together. In its contemporaneity, industrial religion sediments the various accumulated strata, encouraging a belief in the “techno-science-economy” and acting in all domains according to the functional and utilitarian norms of “efficient pragmatism”.
Industrial religion is a religion that is equal to man, where the all powerful creator is man himself, self-fulfilling, and no longer a supra-celestial God. This “faustian vision” of a terrestrial and rational religion, one which is somewhat horizontal, is guided by Progress and by the promise of a future well-being. These were the philosophies of the industry and science of the 19th century, and in particular of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, who described it as an “earthly religion”. Industry found its cult in the transformation of nature by human activity, wielding calculating reason, science and technology.
Industrial religion, derived from the framework of Christianity and from Roman law, has managed to assemble, to weave together even, over a long period of time, a founding myth and a techno-scientific rationality. Industry is first and foremost a cosmology, a fiduciary framework built within Western Christianity. It is myth, rite and institution; and as such, it has its intercessors (industrialists, entrepreneurs), a dogma and a cult, an aesthetic and a body of texts which dictate behavioral norms.
The genealogy of this industrial religion is more a philosophical approach to industry than a historical one, on which a great number of works exist; it is not a fortiori techno-economic. Despite its calculating and rational “appearance”, industry is above all a faith and a cult which has emerged from monotheism. In order to grasp “the faith based structure”, one must “feel all of the real importance of the imaginary”. Taking imagination seriously and even considering it as the raw material for analysis opens up new heuristic possibilities. Industry produces representations, texts, images, places, visions, fictions and even concepts, and not only objects, products and software. This is why it should be considered as a major subject for philosophy.
The construction of industrial imagination and its creation requires that one examines its genealogy in order to grasp this “lineage” which roughly runs through eight hundred years of western history. This religion, a building block in the West’s vision of the world has been in gestation since the time of monasticism, having developed with scientific modernity and has bloomed in the impetuous process of industrialization that has taken place since 1800. It was first institutionalized in the monastery, then in mills and finally in the factory/company. The institution is what holds a solid social structure together, providing it with rhythm and also staging it.
This fiduciary architecture is all the more powerful in that it has remained stable while at the same time transforming its components, and it seems now to have imposed itself in a universal fashion. In effect, industry is a global phenomenon of transformation which, emerging from specific institutions, has spread to all areas of society, accelerating urban development, taking over nations and ultimately, the planet. Born in a sphere of work and in the workshops of monasteries, it spread to the mills, the city, to the factory, and then to the company and the whole of society. It has even become a “hyper-industrialization” in the grip of a generalized and accelerated informatization.
(1) Pierre Legendre,
(2) See Pierre Musso, La religion industrielle. Monastère, manufacture, usine. Une généalogie de l’entreprise. Fayard, Paris, 2017.
(3) Harold Berman, Law and Revolution.
(4) P. Valéry, Œuvres, I, op. cit., p. 1034.
(5) Pierre Veltz, La société hyperindustrielle. Le Seuil, Paris, 2017
Translated by Derek Byrne
Pierre Musso, born in 1950, philosopher by training, emeritus professor of information sciences and communication at the University of Rennes 2 and Télécom Paris Tech. He is a Fellow and Scientific Advisor of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Nantes.