Today's post, besides being quite long-winded even for me, is a bit of a departure from my normal fare, particularly of late. As the US Presidential race gets down to the wire, and as the buzz continues about a financial crisis that is either (a) potentially the worst thing to happen since the Great Depression or is (b) no big deal, I thought that a little trip back in time might be in order. Accordingly, this post contains some real history and actual facts – not enough to hurt you, but some. (But don't worry; I'll try to get in some snarking anyway.)
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It had many of the elements of a New-Wage money-making scheme: the promise of generous compensation for little or no work, the bold vision of a Utopian society and a new era for humankind, the public statements from its creator that could just as well have been nothing more than a bunch of words strung together randomly, for all the sense they made to the average person. (Apparently, however, the obscurantism did not prevent large numbers of folks from hopping aboard the promised gravy train.) There was even a yin-yang symbol that surely would have appealed to today's conspicuously enlightened consumer.
It was called Technocracy, and the only thing missing from the grand marketing plan, at least in those early days, was the Internet.
There's a good reason for that: Technocracy as both an intellectual fad and a mass movement was a spawn not of the Internet Age, but of the Great Depression. Actually it had its roots in the Technical Alliance, a think tank formed at the end of World War I to assess physical economic indicators of the day. That gave way to Technocracy, Inc., which published a home study course, not only to inform citizens about the results of the think tank's studies, but also to lay out a new "scientific social design" that promised a brave new world of abundance for all. Technocrats envisioned a society designed to operate with a minimum expenditure of energy for maximum social gain. Its sophisticated scientific notions were probably a big part of what attracted the forward thinkers of the time, but it became a fad during the Depression for one simple reason: it promised to offer a way out of the dismal economic situation.
As an intellectual movement, Technocracy centered around Columbia University for a while, but as a mass movement its center was in California. The movement was spearheaded by one man, Howard Scott (1890-1970), a practicing engineer who didn't actually have an engineering degree, reportedly because his father's death had cut his college education short. Although online diploma mills, that favorite tool of some of today's New-Wage superstars, were still a few generations in the future, this didn't stop Scott from embellishing his education until he apparently got called on it. According to the late journalist and popular-culture historian Paul Sann, writing in his 1967 book, Fads, Follies and Delusions of the American People, Scott at one point claimed he'd attended universities in Europe, had graduated from an engineering college in Berlin, and then had held executive posts in the engineering field in Europe and Canada. "Later, under oath, he admitted that he held no college degrees," according to Sann, who added:
In the mid-Twenties he was operating a little floor-wax plant in Pompton Lakes, new Jersey, and espousing far-out economic theories in the Greenwich Village watering places at night. He told some rather elaborate stories about flying for the British during [World War I] and then serving as an engineer at Boulder Dam and Muscle Shoals, but only the last item stood up. He had indeed been at Muscle Shoals – in a clerical job.
Another source implies that he was an engineer at Muscle Shoals, but not a very good one:
As documented by [William E.] 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.”
In any event, Scott was certainly no dummy; he had been a child prodigy who read about and understood evolutionary biology by the time he was four years old. Or maybe that's just another story he told about himself, but it's a pretty good one, as stories go. What seems indisputable is that he was an intelligent guy with some big ideas, and he was able to get a lot of people, including prominent politicians and literary figures, excited about those ideas. The Howard Scott that came into the public eye in the 1930s was, as Paul Sann put it in Fads, Follies and Delusions of the American People:
...tall and taciturn and vaguely mysterious and bearing that most wondrous tonic of all – $20,000 a year for every able-bodied citizen over twenty-five years of age willing to work a soft four hours a day for 165 days of the year until he's forty-five. And then? The most golden of all retirements: the money, like Old Man River, keeps rolling along.
The name of the game was Technocracy, and at those prices you had to be pretty dumb to wait around for the man in the White House to produce his miracles...
Sann's description is perhaps a bit misleading, as in Scott's Utopian scenario, actual money would no longer be used. But perhaps those early promises were framed in terms of money because that's what people understood, and as $20,000.00 back then was the equivalent of well over $300,000.00 now, you can see why it would get people's attention. In any case, Scott knew he had a ready-made market in the Depression-weary masses who were tired of waiting for the government to turn things around. For six bucks a year, you could be a member of Scott's organization and help create that bright and shining future.
Truth be told, Scott wanted to do away with the US government altogether, along with the Constitution and the whole mess. He was quoted as saying that "democratic methods are obsolete," and that "the Constitution and our concepts of social order ought to be wrapped in cellophane and put in the Smithsonian Institution for future generations to look at." He thought of those fine American concepts of liberty and justice as "empty baubles of the social epoch of yesterday." Further, he had no love for politicians, stating, "We could take any home of defectives, pick their inmates' names from a hat and so select our House and Senate, and they couldn't do worse than we're doing now." (Okay, I realize that many folks today might agree with that last part, notwithstanding the fact that it's no longer politically correct to refer to special-needs people as "defectives," but as for the rest...well, I don't know about you, but I'm kind of partial to the Constitution, old-fashioned gal that I am.)
Scott and company had in mind something far superior to the quaint conceits of the Founding Fathers of the United States: a society based not on noble principles such as freedom and truth, but on rigorous application of engineering principles. This ideal society would be run not by politicians or community leaders or even by the clergy, but by engineers, scientists, and technologists. Rather than the United States, Technocrats envisioned something called the Technate State of North America, which merged the US and the rest of North America, as well as Central America, the West Indies, and Bermuda. (Actually the TSNA included Hawaii as well, which wasn't a state at the time; at least it could be said that the Technocrats got their wish about that part in 1959.) Regarding the TSNA's interaction with the rest of the world, that huge non-Technate chunk still operating on antiquated economic and political systems, the Technocrats were a bit more cloudy about that, although Scott seemed to be a dedicated isolationist, bent on creating a Technate that was impervious to "alien cultural intrusions," and, presumably, had no need for trade with the backwards aliens.
Equality for all (just don't ask too many questions)
Although disclaiming anything so mushy as altruistic motives, Scott and other advocates of Technocracy contended that their way offered the only real antidote to inequality and injustice. (Technocrats today still make this claim.) Under Technocracy, everyone would be equal, at least on a material level, and no one would lack for basic necessities. Since in the Technocratic view modern technology was (and is) capable of overcoming the problem of scarcity, the Technate design would include such post-scarcity perks as free housing, transportation, recreation, education, and consumer products as a right of citizenship.
If that sounds kind of like socialism, it's not, as Technocrats will hasten to explain, because socialism and communism, and for that matter capitalism, are based on market economics and the price system, whereas Technocracy proposes a non-market economy based on a non-monetary system called "Energy Accounting." (And no, we're not talking about the nebulous "energies" that so many New-Wagers are constantly nattering about.) The theory went that the Technocrats could determine a product's value by the amount of energy consumed in production, and could hence create a monetary system based on "energy certificates" that would be good for a given amount of consumption.
The Social Security Online site, in its overview of various economic reform movements of the past, explains that technocracy was neither a political nor an economic system:
Technocracy held that all politics and all economic arrangements based on the "Price System" (i.e., based on traditional economic theory) were antiquated and that the only hope of building a successful modern world was to let engineers and other technology experts run the country on engineering principles. Technocracy's rallying cry was "production for use," which was meant as a contrast to production for profit in the capitalist system. Production for use became a slogan for many of the radical-left movements of the era. Upton Sinclair, among others, affirmed his belief in "production for use" and the Technocrats briefly made common cause with Sinclair, and even Huey Long, in California. But the Technocrats were not of the political left, as they held every political and economic system, from the left to the right, to be unsound.
As for that yin-yang symbol, Technocrats called it the "Monad." It was chosen because it symbolized the balance between distribution and consumption, an integral part of the social program designed by Technocracy.
Though they didn't think of themselves as a political party, that didn't stop Howard Scott and friends from some rather unsettling talk about "taking over," as this consummately run society could only be created and maintained by "an elite of engineers and scientists." In January of 1933, according to Paul Sann's account in the book cited above, Scott spoke of his big plans to an audience of 400 bankers, industrialists, artists and economists who had gathered at New York's swanky Hotel Pierre to honor him. He said that within the next eighteen months he expected to have no less than 20 million adherents, which, he said, would be more than enough to "sweep out Washington and let the technicians get going," as Sann put it. Scott also made this statement in 1935:
If our numbers continue at the present rate of increase we shall not be a minority when we take over. It looks as if we shall have sufficient numbers by 1940 to carry out our plans, perhaps by popular mandate.
"Perhaps by popular mandate?" Hmmm....
Yet Scott himself claimed he had no ambitions, political or otherwise; he merely wanted to whip society into shape and get all Americans that promised $20,000.00 per year. He later joked that the only job he wanted was "custodian of the bears in Yellowstone Park. The bears hibernate in winter and are tourist-fed the rest of the year." Disclaimers notwithstanding, he apparently had an ego that was every bit as imposing as his physical presence. The late Langdon W. Post, who later became a federal public housing administrator in California, was briefly associated with Scott at Columbia University. Post remembered Scott as "an egotist who thought of himself as a kind of Messiah come to earth in the midst of a deep Depression with orders to remodel a decadent and demoralized economic and political system." He said Scott had a phenomenal memory and a genius for explaining complex principles, but he alienated everyone around him with his high-handed methods. According to Sann, Post said, "He was determined to run the whole show himself, but he really had very little idea what the show should be."
He also didn't seem to think transparency was all that important. This was evident even back in the days before Technocracy became a mass fad. In a 1921 interview with Scott, Charles H. Wood, associate editor of the New York World, asked him, "And suppose you draw up a seemingly workable plan. What are you going to do with public opinion?"
To which Scott replied, "It is all a technical matter. It makes not the slightest difference whether the public knows about it or not. The steam engine didn't need a press agent. The Einstein Theory doesn't require any special legislative enactment. If the only people who can bring order to our present industrial chaos find out exactly how to do the job, we needn't worry about the next step."
More than fifteen years later, when Technocracy had undergone considerable growing pains, Scott announced that Technocracy's ranks had skyrocketed "by 461 percent in the past year alone." As Sann wrote, "The natural question was, 461 percent of what? And the answer [from Scott], as ever, was, 'We have never told and we never will.'"
Scott apparently didn't even find it all that necessary to explain exactly what Technocracy was, at least not in a way that the average person could understand it.
The word "technocracy," as representative of a new body of thought, means governance by science – social control through the power of technique... Technocracy is a new approach to social phenomena. As such, a governance by science is one which would proceed from a methodology of determination and which would operate under a balanced load control of all function sequences.
Did you get that? Good, maybe you can 'splain it to me. On second thought, never mind.
Damn the critics; full speed ahead!
While many of the literati, intellectuals and even a few politicians became advocates of Technocracy, there were, not surprisingly, critics, many of whom had honest questions about just exactly how the Technocratic Utopia was supposed to be created and sustained. Scott's attitude, according to Sann, could be summed up thusly: "We don't have to answer our critics. Time will tell who is correct." But the critics continued to hammer away at Scott and his vision. Political columnist, author, and magazine publisher Walter Lippmann, in a piece that could have just as easily been written about some of today's mystical/scientific "experts," wrote:
The prestige of science, the mystification of scientific jargon, the prediction of disaster, and the promise of salvation have proved to be an ideal combination to impress a people who are disillusioned, frightened, and eager for guidance. It is a heartless pretense...It is a vast inflation and pyramiding of generalizations and theories on a small base of substantial truth...the prophesies and promises...are scientific hocus pocus.
The delusion of grandeur which causes him (Scott) to look upon himself as the innovator of a new era in human thought and to say that "all philosophic approaches to social phenomena, from Plato to – and including – Marx, must functionally be avoided as intellectual expressions of dementia praecox" should not impress anyone. That is nothing but the pretentious ignorance of a crank.
Hmmm.... "pretentious ignorance"... kind of reminds me of some of those quantum-physics "experts" in the New-Wage industry. (Hey, I promised snarking, and by golly, I deliver.)
Technocracy had a bit of a setback when the Technocrats were ousted from Columbia University in 1933; according to Sann's account, Scott was told by Columbia's president, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, never to set foot on campus again. Several other followers also left the Technocratic fold, and for a time it appeared that Technocracy's heyday was over. Scott was "dismayed but defiant," according to Sann. He withdrew from public life for a short time, confining himself mostly to a friend's Manhattan apartment. He always said that Technocracy was a labor of love for him and that in truth he had no money. "But the work will go on," he said, and it did. Scott claimed large membership gains from a tour he made through the western United States in 1934.
Here's where it gets kind of creepy. Paul Sann writes:
By then his Youth Brigade had flowered, complete with a military salute, and some of the grown-ups were in uniform. The model technocrat wore a double-breasted gray suit, in gabardine serge, gray hat, gray shirt, gray socks, navy blue tie and matching handkerchief, and plain-toed cordovan shoes of reddish horsehide. (Underwear was optional.) The outfit cost twenty-five dollars and you had to get permission from your local [Technocratic] board of governors to wear it. The rule was that once you draped yourself in that Howard Scott gray you had to stay in it. And if you happened to be overweight you had another kind of problem. Scott, always lean himself, kept you in civies because he felt that fat technocrats didn't look good in double-breasted suits. The women weren't neglected, by the way; for twenty-two dollars they could hide their charms in drab single-breasted gray suits with blouses of gray or blue.
Scott insisted this was not a military uniform: "It is not a uniform for parading. It is a uniform for living and working." That's unsettling enough, but even more unsettling is Scott's reply when asked whether he thought Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was for all practical purposes setting up a kind of technocracy in Italy. Il Duce was, after all, famous for "making the trains run on time" (or at least that's what people widely believed, and still do to this day). To the question about Mussolini, Scott responded:
Mussolini has demonstrated his capacity for initiative and leadership. His position in the vanguard of European social action places him as probably the only figure in the Western European political world who has both the vision and the dynamic will to initiate the first national move away from the old traditional structures in the management of human affairs.
Kind of makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, doesn't it?
As World War II heated up and the United States became involved, Scott continued to push his agenda. In the spring of 1942, no longer the isolationist but now keenly interested in what was going on in Europe, he took out full-page ads in daily newspapers across the nation, urging FDR to name him his "Director General of Defense." Scott apparently had a plan for certain victory, as bold as his blueprint for a perfect society. He also bought time on nearly a hundred radio stations, published several slick magazines and pamphlets, and even set up a "continental headquarters" in a Manhattan skyscraper. By that time, the uniforms were not only much more in evidence, but Technocracy had a motorcycle corps, "disaster squads," and a fleet of gray sedans. It had branches in San Diego, San Francisco, Detroit, Phoenix and numerous other cities. Scott was now called "The Chief," and when asked how he got that title, he replied, "I got here first."
Despite his implied admiration for the world's most famous Fascist, Scott did have an issue with Hitler and the Nazis. He said Technocracy's opposition to the Nazis was "not merely on the basis of ideology, but because Germany is built largely on human toil and ours is a power and extraneous energy society."
It seemed, though, that ideology didn't enter into it at all for Scott. Regarding the millions of Jews and others who were being systematically eradicated by the Nazis, that wasn't even an issue for The Chief, who stated, "Technocrats are not filled with any love of humanity or influenced by any ethical idea, but are primarily concerned with function."
I suppose there's no better evidence than this statement that the the well-oiled machine Scott envisioned was just that: a machine. With all of its parts working perfectly and according to plan, there was no actual need for a warm beating heart or a functioning soul. Or a conscience, for that matter.
The big "yeah-but..."
It's not that matters of the heart and soul had no place in the Technocratic vision. With all of the bothersome problems of survival and sustenance finally taken care of through the application of sound engineering principles, there would presumably be ample time and opportunity for creative pursuits and pleasures. Technocracy at least seemed to recognize that humans are, after all, creative beings.
But from where I sit, there were other aspects of human nature that the Technocrats apparently didn't take into consideration.
For example, there's that primal need to own stuff, a need that seems to have grown more powerful in the decades since the Great Depression, and, thanks to influences such as The Secret, has attained a pseudospiritual cachet in today's New-Wage consumer paradise. Under the Technocratic plan, alas, individuals would own nothing beyond their own immediate personal belongings and apparel. They couldn't buy enormous mansions to advertise their elevated status to the world, for living spaces would be huge multi-story, multi-use affairs, partitioned off as needed for individuals or families, and encompassing retail and office space. Perhaps even worse, people....gasp...couldn't own a stable of overpriced cars, or even one car; they would merely "pay" for "energy units" for the use of transportation on a time-distance basis.
Something tells me that this kind of stuff wouldn't set well at all with many of today's hustledorks or their fawning followers. To tell the truth, this kind of stuff wouldn't set too well with most of us.
Technocracy, in short, fails to take into account that all-too-human desire to have more, more, MORE. It also seemingly neglects to consider the human need to be "superior" in some way to one's fellows.
There are numerous other arguments in opposition to Technocracy and its system of "energy accounting." Some contend that under such a system, people would not work because the money incentive would be lost. Technocrats contend that "work" as we know it wouldn't be necessary under their system. Others say that people need hierarchies, so Technocracy's basically structureless society just wouldn't be feasible. There's even the argument that Technocracy would create too much equality (see that bit above about the need to feel "superior"). And some point out that no matter how efficiently Technocracy distributes resources, some resources are finite, and furthermore, there will always be scarcity. Technocrats argue that without the profit motive people would be more motivated to protect resources for our future survival. And so on. In a nutshell, Technocracy is bursting at the seams with ideas that could make even the most non-New-Wagey capitalist's head explode.
Whatever you might think of Howard Scott and his ideas, however, the issues touched on above are important ones and aren't going to go away any time soon. At the very least, Technocrats then and now have made a serious attempt to address them.
Whatever happened to Howard Scott?
World War II ended with an Allied victory, which occurred despite FDR's refusal to recognize the genius and military acumen of Howard Scott by naming him Director General of Defense. The US entered into an era of unprecedented prosperity, and Technocracy pretty much fell by the wayside. In 1948, a former assistant director of Technocracy, Inc. brought suit against Scott in Manhattan Supreme Court, accusing him of pocketing "excessive compensation in the form of an expense account without proper authorization." According to the former Technocrat, Albert W. Atwater, the organization had a mere 8,900 dues-paying members at the time, but Scott had made no financial reports on its annual income. It seemed that Scott's claims of memberships in the millions were hugely exaggerated. Where the money had come from for the big media blitz in 1942 was anyone's guess.
Of course, Scott wasn't the first and would be far from the last faddish "visionary" to be a little dodgy about money matters.
"After a while," concluded Paul Sann, "it didn't matter. Technocracy, perhaps the most ominous of all our fads, receded into history without a formal burial."
Technocracy may have receded, but make no mistake about it: it is still alive and well and in no apparent danger of being buried any time soon. It still has its passionate advocates in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, and many look upon Howard Scott as a hero and a man ahead of his time. Though he died in 1970, his ideas live on.
I realize that in this lengthy post I've quoted rather extensively from Paul Sann's work, which is not readily available, and I further realize that many apologists for Technocracy and Howard Scott would argue, with some justification, that neither Sann nor I have done justice to the depth and breadth of Scott's vision. Indeed, I have not even scratched the surface of all of the material available on Technocracy, and certainly have done nothing to explain how a Technocratic state would theoretically be created and sustained. To tell the truth, I barely understand it myself. So I leave you to follow the various links I've provided above and below, or do some Googling of your own, and draw your own conclusions.
I will say this, though: From the perspective of today's New-Wage hucksters, it's really too bad that Technocracy still exists as a viable organization, with proprietary copyrighted material. Otherwise, it probably would become yet one more long-hidden, recently rediscovered "ancient secret" for rapacious Internet capitalists to repackage and sell to a gullible public. (I have a very strong feeling that they would find some way to exempt themselves from that no-car-ownership stipulation.)
As for the larger lessons in the tale of Howard Scott and Technocracy, there are several, I'm sure, but I'll leave that up to you to determine for yourself, if you're so inclined. In any case, I wish you happy Googling. Just don't get so distracted that you forget to go out and vote on Tuesday (well, provided you're a US citizen and all that).
PS ~ According to the Social Security site linked to above, the classic 1941 Frank Capra film Meet John Doe, staring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, depicts the Depression-era period of mass movements through the story of a fictional "John Doe" who represents an amalgam of many of the ideas of various movements, including Technocracy. (Apparently it's nearly impossible to find a decent-quality reproduction of this movie, at least on Amazon.)
PPS ~ Being in a popular-history state of mind lately, I recently picked up my old book club edition copy of the late William Manchester's fine work, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. Although there's not a peep about Howard Scott and Technocracy in all of its 1,400-plus pages, there is some pretty eye-opening stuff about what was going on in America during the Great Depression. Definitely worth reading.
PPPS ~ My pal HHH recently pointed out a couple of relevant items to me: (1) The conspiracy-porn flick that's making the rounds on the Net now, Zeitgeist: Addendum, will seem strangely familiar to anyone who knows about Technocracy (and vice versa); and (2) M. King Hubbert, originator of the peak oil theory, was a Technocracy Inc. co-founder with Howard Scott.
(I wonder what my late father, who was a geophysicist with Exxon, would have thought about today's peak oil/scarcity hysteria. I would have asked him what he thought about the peak oil theory in general, had I known of its existence when he was alive...)
Previous "history lessons" on my Whirled (inspired in part by the aforementioned Paul Sann):
- Everything old is new again: Emile Coué and his twelve-word tonic were once all the rage with earnest self-improvers.
- Orgone conclusions: Wilhelm had the Reich stuff to get himself in a whole heap of trouble with the US government.
Labels: Meanwhile back in the real world..., Politix, pop culture, Some real history