“When a new system comes into existence, its intellectual basis, the results of science, is to be found in a new principle of trust, and then the critical epoch is over.”
— August Comte
The positivist philosopher, August Comte, believed European history could be read as a long transition that displaced the military-theological feudal system. The description is very simplistic: there has been an evolution towards high-tech industrial developments powered by science, but the military-theological structures that have always maintained power and control are still there. In fact, they seem to be getting stronger rather than diminishing.
Comte, like most positive thinking in the last two hundred years, based his optimism on science, but he envisaged the power of science to be operating in tandem with industry, and this was his mistake. For science to be a positive, transformative agent on human society it needs to be in control of that transformation: it must control industry rather than being a mere tool for profit-making. Science today is merely a submissive puppet in industry’s rapacious game of accumulation and domination.
In Comte’s defence, he himself was fully aware of how easy it was for feudalism to make a come-back after a progressive revolution, for he had already seen how quickly the retrograde power of Napoleon’s dictatorship was able to install itself after the Revolution. Because of that, he thought very deeply on how a post-revolutionary regression to the military-theological system could be avoided.
Firstly, Comte reasoned, political imagination had to be observant. And what Comte meant by being observant was that it must be conscious of what it needs to look for and what it needs to fear.
Here we find a reason to explain why Comte, despite our need for positive political thinking, has been largely ignored by theorists – for to be observant in Comte’s sense of the word would imply that the political imagination of any revolution would be conscious of any retrograde thinking that could give credence to the military-theological power base embedded within the same revolution. What Comte assumed was that that power base had to have been vanquished by the revolution, but that never happened, and never will happen whenever the success of a revolution is seen as dependent on military force rather than passive surrender. If the force of the system can only be vanquished by a greater force, the force will only be substituted by more force and this creates a snowballing effect that amplifies the basic problem itself. Likewise, an observant revolution can never take place through Parliamentary-political processes. The congressional politics of our current representationally-democratic systems can never really be observant because they can never truly liberate themselves from the kind of power they are supposed to be vigilant of.
Comte’s argument is therefore correct – but unrealistic. After the French Revolution failed a new revolution was needed and came via Marx and the spirit of the proletariat. The communist regimes were vigilant, but half-heartedly. Where communism was largely effective in escaping the theological paradigm, it could do nothing to escape the militaristic, and hence the theological returned in the communist regimes through the dogmatic personality cults of its military dictators.
The Second World War, and the subsequent arms race of the Cold War, gave industry and its faithful tool science, a fertile field for cultivating and accumulating enormous wealth. The Cold War was a conflict between military-theological-industry (and science) and military-antitheological-industry (and science), in which the real winners were Industry and the Military; and science was always their faithful hound.
Likewise, observance became a vigilance of rivals (on the industrial plane) and their theological or antitheological enemies (on the theological plane). Then, with the collapse of the antitheological, the communist threat was very quickly replaced by a new global power: the guerrilla/military-theological feudal power that is Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or Isis.
In Comte’s terms, positive progress has not only been thwarted by not being allowed to move forward at all, it is in danger of collapsing right back into feudalism. The observance of industrial rivals is still a first priority, but the vigilance of the capitalist system has another annoying fight with terrorists to contend with. Terrorists and other militants fighting a guerrilla war to reinstate feudalism as another kind of military-theology. Force breeds more force, and the neo-feudalism we see spreading through central Asia breeds another kind of feudalism in other parts of Asia, America and Europe. What Comte called feudalism, we now call populism.
There is of course nothing positive or forward moving toward human fulfilment in any of our current power-struggle scenarios.
What has failed to take place in order for Comte’s optimistic plan to unravel itself, has been the lack of prevision in science, or the lack of scientific criteria in the development of political programmes that have abused science for military and profit-making purposes.
Comte believed that only advanced “scientific prevision can avert or mitigate violent revolutions.” What he did not mean when he said this, was that the scientific prevision should be invented in military projects and reactionary wars of rivalry.
But if this is what he didn’t mean, what did he mean? How could a scientific prevision have made our world a better place than it is today?
We will try and answer those questions when we continue in Science versus Industry: Part Two.
 See Mike Gane, AUGUST COMTE, Routledge, p.31
 Ibid, p.33