The Engineered Society

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This winter the ongoing battle for control of the Reform party began to strain credulity—not to mention the adage that politics makes strange bed-fellows. In one corner was Donald Trump, who was supported by a former professional wrestler turned governor and was trying to become the first man to be elected President despite his reaching for a Sani-Wipe after every handshake. His main opposition was the onetime conservative speechwriter and commentator Pat Buchanan, backed by a pair of leftist cult leaders from New York City.

Neither Buchanan nor Trump, of course, had a very good chance of becoming our next President. But the fact that millions of Americans were willing to consider voting for them underscored an unusual dissatisfaction with mainstream politics in a time of general peace and prosperity. Reform party voters seem to reflect a wide disgust with the whole conduct of our politics and an unease over such specific issues as our rush into the brave new global economy.

It has been a long time since a major candidate in any party has run a campaign challenging the nation’s underlying political consensus. Probably the last one could really be said to be Barry Goldwater, back in 1964, with the race that ended up launching the modern conservative movement.

Yet we have never seen so many challenges to our basic institutions as we did during the Great Depression, our most sustained national crisis. The 1930s witnessed no less than the advent of two New Deals, one Liberty League, and innumerable socialists, communists, agrarians, and home-grown Nazis.

Some of their programs helped bring about valuable reforms. Others were pure flimflam. None, however, produced such a great tumult in such a short time —or appears quite so weird today—as the technocracy movement.

The technocrats were as much a faith and a grudge as they ever were a real political party. They worshiped “the myth of the engineer”—the new class of practical technicians and masters of the machines—and they believed that ever-more prodigious levels of productivity could he attained if only business were reorganized “rationally” and objectively by the engineers.

The technocrats’ prophet was one Howard Scott, who might have been created out of whole cloth by Ayn Rand. A large, rangy individual, he liked, according to his biographer, William E. Akin, to affect a “broad brimmed hat ... a big leather coat suitable to outdoor engineering, soft shirts with crumpled collars, a red necktie, and a red handkerchief.” But for all his bravado, Scott had decidedly shaky credentials as an engineer.

As documented by Akin in Technocracy and the American Dream , Scott seems to have had little formal education, and his most notable work as an engineer was at a Muscle Shoals nitrates project during World War I. A postwar government investigation charged him with “gross waste, inefficiency, and shoddy workmanship.”

This experience notwithstanding, by the end of the war Scott had become convinced that engineers should run the world. Many of his colleagues seem to have felt the same way, but in the prosperous twenties a fledgling organizing effort fizzled out. Scott moved to Greenwich Village, where he lived in a studio apartment dominated by what one visitor called “an appalling phallic water color” and happily tinkered away at his theories.

By 1932, with the United States laboring through its third year of a devastating depression and every bank in the country about to shut its doors, the country was hungry for ideas—any ideas. Scott by now was hobnobbing with a first-rate promoter, the writer Harold Loeb, and also with Walter Rautenstrauch, a professor at Columbia University’s engineering school who was suspicious of some of Scott’s theories but shared his general conviction that engineers ought to be running everything.

Scott’s basic idea was that all human endeavor could effectively be measured in terms of energy expended. Whatever it took to make anything could be translated into pure ergs and joules. Therefore, the first thing to do was to take a grand energy survey of all the nation’s industries, a project to which Rautenstrauch actually got Columbia’s venerable president Nicholas Murray Butler to lend his support. Once it was determined how much energy it took to make everything, the nation’s engineers could step in and eliminate the irrational “social motives” in business. That is, all the energy businessmen put into making luxury goods —or profits.

Scott was always vague about just what would happen next. When pressed, he and his associates finally theorized that some sort of scrip, equivalent to the energy the nation used in a year, could be distributed on a perfectly equal basis to all U.S. citizens. To keep everything balanced and that pesky capital from accumulating, people would have to use up their “energy certificates” during the year or see them become worthless. The result, Loeb asserted in a book he rushed into print by early 1933, would be such abundance that no one would have to work more than four hours or so, four days a week.

What the technocrats had failed to recognize is that politicians are themselves engineers of a sort.

There were, of course, many flaws with technocracy readily apparent to anyone over the age of ten. How was the energy involved in running service businesses—or, indeed, the production of most anything besides heavy industry—to be measured? Even if it could be, wasn’t this just substituting another price system for the one that had supposedly been the root of all the world’s troubles? Moreover, why would engineers prove any more disinterested than any other class of human beings, once handed complete and supreme power?

Scott had few answers for such practical questions, but the concept struck a popular nerve nonetheless. Even after the Great Engineer himself, Herbert Hoover, had failed to curb the crisis, the idea of the engineer—a learned but practical mechanic, with hands-on experience—still resonated in a nation of born tinkerers.

During the terrible winter of 1932-33, the nadir of the Depression, when unemployment in the United States reached at least 25 percent, technocracy clubs were formed all around the country. At their height, in early 1933, their membership may have numbered as many as a quarter-million Americans. The nation’s newspapers, skillfully primed by Loeb, ran column after column speculating about the new technocratic world to come.

The clamor grew irresistible, and finally Scott was persuaded to explain what technocracy was all about with a speech at New York’s Hotel Pierre, on January 13, 1933. This was a grave mistake. Speaking over a nationwide radio hookup, and before a live audience of four hundred of New York’s leading “capitalists, bankers, industrialists, economists, and artists,” Scott claimed: “We are not attempting to say, as some of our critics have said, that there is going to be chaos or there is going to be doom”—and then went on to do precisely that.

His speech consisted of little more than asserting that things were bad and would get worse unless a technocracy were established. His only other prediction was that politicians opposed to technocracy would portray it “as one of the propositions that will necessitate a state politically that would be so grave that an institutional fascism will be proposed under the guise of a dictatorial prerequisite of the incoming President.”

Language like that led technocrats to charge later that Scott had been drugged. Within days his great idea was being mocked in Congress as “the great Columbia rackety-rax.” President Butler and Professor Rautenstrauch hastened to dissociate the university from Scott. Technocracy clubs continued to exist and even grow right up until the Second World War, but the steam had gone out of the movement.

Scott would later go on to sketch more details of what a technocratic state would look like, but it proved to be a depressingly familiar Utopia. Any sort of culture or frivolity was derided, and an armed dictatorship would be ready to enforce contentment. As Archibald MacLeish put it, “Nothing is required of man but that he should submit to the laws of physics, measure his life in ergs and discard all interests which cannot be expressed in foot pounds per second.”

What the technocrats had failed to perceive was that politicians are themselves engineers of a sort. They, too, tend to be craftspeople with a good deal of practical experience. They must maneuver the immensely complicated machine that is modern society, constantly balancing present and future, principle and expediency, the needs and wants of all the people they represent.

Certainly by the early months of 1933 our politicians were doing little to inspire confidence. The same could well be said today, and the American people are right to look with disgust and alarm on their endless personal scandals, our campaign-contribution system, and treaties that blithely allow bureaucrats in Geneva to override our national laws. Yet before we turn ourselves over to any aggregation of neofascists, wrestlers, or moist-pawed magnates, we would do well to remember that it was not the Utopians but the politicians who led us through the Depression and the awful war that followed. Maybe all we need are better engineers.