American Technocracy emerged in various forms between 1911 and 1930. It began in 1911 when Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer, wrote a short book titled: The Principles of Scientific Management. In it he outlined a technique for studying industrial production scientifically and thereby improving the efficiency of the factory or workshop. Industry - Taylor reasoned, was bound by the same physical laws as the rest of the natural world and in that sense was mechanistic and determined. Soon enough his idea of scientific management would be speculatively applied to society: If any industry could be improved scientifically, could society at large be similarly improved? America’s technocrats replied with an enthusiastic 'Yes!'
The earliest technocrats were engineers and economists and they drew heavily upon Taylor’s arguments. They were especially influenced by Taylor's description of the social role of engineering. It was Taylor’s view that the primary cause of suffering throughout the country could be linked to various forms of inefficiency. Taylor’s claim that engineers in particular had a unique role to play in combating inefficiency doubled as a moral claim: engineers were obliged to combat inefficiency in order to decrease suffering. Furthermore, his insistence that engineers were uniquely suited to this task meant that they had a special, even solitary, responsibility to reform institutions and industries towards greater efficiency.
In the early 20th century Engineers in particular were struggling with the meaning of their profession. In the 1890’s the number of professionally trained engineers in the United States had increased tenfold and despite their professional qualifications they lacked the prestige or freedom of other comparable career paths, ie. doctors and lawyers.1 As engineers grappled with this disparity some were attracted by Taylor’s arguments. They especially believed in the unique social responsibility of engineers and the most progressive of them began to form research organizations geared towards actualizing Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management.
In 1916 Henry Gantt, Taylor’s assistant and disciple, managed to gather fifty likeminded engineers and organize a proto-technocratic organization called the ‘New Machine’. The organization collapsed when the United States entered WWI but in the months leading up to the April war declaration the ‘New Machine’ articulated for the first time many of the goals which later Technocrats would expand upon and attempt to carry out. In particular they proposed a nationwide survey of national industry.
Herbert Hoover would attempt to carry out such a survey after the war but there was little public interest at the time when it was completed. Regardless, the results of Hoover’s survey outlined four barriers to what he called ‘maximum production.’ They were: (1) low production resulting from faulty management & equipment, (2) interrupted production runs due to strikes and lockouts, (3) conscious restriction of production, & (4) low production caused by accidents, physical defects or ill health.2 While Hoover saw these issues as essentially resolvable through normal political and economic means, technocrats of the 1920’s and 1930’s articulated more radical solutions.
Thorstein Veblen was one such technocrat. He placed the cause of industrial inefficiency squarely upon the shoulders of the business classes and called for a council of engineers who could manage industry with greater integrity. Originally from Kansas, Veblen borrowed from the Jeffersonian & Jacksonian distinctions between agriculture & business to cite a similar distinction between industry & business. In other words he took the view articulated by pastoralists that the business classes “lived off of the productive labor of the common man” and applied the same sentiment to industry.3 Veblen viewed the business classes as a barrier to industrial efficiency and he went so far as to accuse them of ‘sabotaging’ society for their own gain.
In 1919 Thorstein Veblen, by then living in New York City, organized the ‘Technical Alliance.’ In many ways it was a successor to the ‘New Machine’. Veblen had even sought to invite Henry Gantt into the organization but Gantt’s untimely death prevented it. Regardless, the Technical Alliance possessed the same objectives as Gantt's earlier organization. They desired first to conduct their own survey of the nation’s energy resources & then measure the nation’s industries in terms of energy. They hoped that such a survey would allow the nation’s engineers to calculate the ‘one way’ of optimally organizing the economy. This built upon the original objective of the New Machine and in some sense recouped the enthusiasm for social engineering which had dwindled during the war.
Around this time Veblen pushed the ideas of Taylor and Gantt to new limits. Veblen attempted to articulate the specific social causes of inefficiency in connection with the ‘myth of the engineer.' He suggested that 'engineers' were not to be defined by their specialty training but by the very compulsion towards efficiency. In this way he also expanded the historical context of engineers by suggesting that engineers had been operating in human society since ancient times. At the same time Veblen asserted that the business and financial classes had played an important role in bringing about the industrial age but that the sheer complexity of the economic machine had brought it beyond the scope of its creators.
This image suggested that it was time for engineers to take charge of the industrial economy because no other group had the specialized training or objective attitude needed to maximize production. He proposed a ‘soviet of technicians’ who would oversee the efficient and objectively scientific operation of the economy. Such an organization, he believed, would be able to successfully “allocate resources, assume full employment of men & equipment, avoid waste and duplication and assure sufficient production for consumer’s needs.”4 In this way Veblen articulated the expanded political role for engineers which would come to be the intellectual cornerstone of technocracy.
Veblen’s utopian dreams also brought technocracy in line with other utopian political visions from the same period. Veblen's utopian claims rested almost entirely upon a faith in the progressive potential of science. This allowed Technocracy to take on a variety of meanings because it relied on the vague promises of scientism. While Veblen tended towards a socialist utopia, others would arise with liberal and even fascist utopias which still retained technocratic characteristics. In this way Technocracy was able to appeal to a wider audience of radicals by being somewhat vague but also made it difficult to articulate a single clear vision or plan of action.
This may also have been due to the inability of the Technocrats to remain in a single unified group. Veblen’s Technical Alliance fell apart in 1921, as low interest and a lack of funding brought their research to a standstill. Veblen died in 1929 but the Technocrats redoubled their efforts when, during that same year, Black Tuesday struck and America entered the Great Depression. The sense of fear and instability helped bring about what was referred to as the ‘technocraze’ by the nation’s newspapers. This was a brief period from June 1932 into January of 1933 wherein the press coverage and popularity of the technocrats skyrocketed. However, the chosen spokesperson for the newly formed ‘Committee on Technocracy,’ Howard Scott, would prove a disastrous choice.
During the ‘technocraze’, sympathetic organizations formed across the country. Technocracy was especially popular on the west coast, as six technocratic organizations formed in the Los Angeles area alone, two more in San Francisco and one in Seattle. Technocratic organizations also formed in Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Cleveland & Kansas City among others. By far the largest groups were those in Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver. These organizations also began to draw members from socialist and fascist backgrounds. Across the nation these disparate organizations looked to the New York City technocrats for leadership. In 1933 the Technocrats seemed poised to take the nation by storm, yet the practical spike in popularity was wasted when the Committee on Technocracy suffered an irrecoverable schism.
Howard Scott had been a faithful companion of Veblen’s during the days of the Technical Alliance. When he was introduced to the Technical Alliance he claimed to have been educated in Europe, though it was later revealed that he had no formal education or training as an engineer. The closest he ever came was during the war when Scott had worked as a cement pourer. Yet despite his own beliefs about the importance of efficiency and engineering, an audit of his unit after the war revealed “gross waste and inefficiency.” In any case it was not Scott’s engineering background (or lack thereof) which brought him into the ranks of technocratic leadership, it was his outspoken demeanor and wild enthusiasm that helped him carve a niche for himself as the party’s spokesperson. While other members of the Committee on Technocracy preferred to speak towards academic audiences, Scott wrote for the public and despite writing relatively little and with vague and often contradictory claims he came to be the de facto face of the committee.
Scott’s love of publicity would come to harm the technocrats when he delivered a poorly received speech to an audience of four hundred business professionals at the Hotel Pierre on January 13th 1933. The speech was broadcast over radio across the country. In his speech he made rambling comparisons of energy usage and economic growth between the United States, China and Europe. He also predicted, perhaps more shockingly, that a greater and deeper economic depression was looming. As such he urged sudden action by the engineering class, to take control of the mechanisms of production. The speech was said to have been “clumsy and incoherent.”
Many of Scott’s claims, especially his apocalyptic predictions, drew the ire of the other members of the Committee on Technocracy. The media scorned the technocrats. It was also during this time that Scott’s lack of engineering credentials was revealed to the public. Frustrated by Scott’s behavior the Committee’s formal if less public leader, Walter Rautenstrauch, moved the Committee to request that Scott, who was also in charge of the Committee's checkbook at this time, allow the Committee to perform an audit of their spending. Scott refused to return the Committee’s funds to them and refused to provide any receipts of the Committee’s expenditures. In response Rautenstrauch and the other Committee members resigned.
While the loyalist technocrats attempted to reorganize the disbanded Committee, Scott went his own way and formed Technocracy Inc. The two groups which emerged took radically different ideological directions and ultimately came to antagonize one another to such a degree that despite the emergence of numerous technocratic organizations across the country they were unable to unify into a single entity until it was too late. By the time that one of the organizations won out the interest in technocracy had subsided.
Harold Loeb, a novelist and friend of the technocrats since the early days of Veblen’s Technical Alliance stepped into the leadership role after the schism. Loeb had largely stayed out of technocratic circles but perceiving the collapse of the Committee on Technocracy he did what he could to keep Veblen’s ideas alive. Loeb published a book in 1933 titled Life In Technocracy, What it Might be Like. The book had a limited reception but it was a unique description of Technocratic life and lent him some authority. Shortly thereafter he managed to re-organize the New York technocrats into the Continental Committee.
Seen as the natural successor to the Committee on Technocracy, and to the Technical Alliance, Loeb and the Continental Committee actually took a more liberal stance than the preceding organizations. Loeb forwarded the notion that a technocratic state would serve humanity in such a way so as to maximize liberty. That is to say that in ‘maximizing production’ they would also maximize the leisure time in which Americans would be free to do whatever they pleased. In this conception of technocracy Loeb maintained the sovereignty of the individual as paramount. Despite sometimes approaching descriptions of political anarchy, Loeb believed that a successful soviet of technicians would essentially eliminate the need for complex political systems by eliminating corruption altogether. Loeb's vision was hopeful.
Loeb and the Continental Committee were well received by other technocratic organizations across the country. By May of 1933 the Continental Committee successfully united seventy local level technocratic organizations and had 250,000 members.8 This was the peak of technocratic organization. The Chicago technocrats even requested Loeb’s permission to host a technocratic convention. Loeb was enthusiastic but when he learned that the Chicago technocrats had also invited Howard Scott he became wary.
Loeb was likely aware of the ideological direction which Scott’s Technocracy Inc. had gone. At the convention Scott and his corporatist followers arrived in caravans of grey automobiles. They also wore a sort of uniform: double breasted suits, grey shirts and blue ties, with pins of the monad symbol of Technocracy Inc. pinned to their blazers.10 Scott’s disciple William Knight had encouraged this and had even convinced the members of Technocracy Inc. to start saluting Scott. Knight had helped to organize Technocracy Inc. into a small army of engineers. Technocracy Inc.’s scare tactics managed to break some members away from the Continental Committee and indeed splintered the Chicago technocrats entirely.
While Loeb had championed liberty and freedom from authoritarian politics, Scott had been moving in an entirely opposite direction. Free from the intellectual tempering which the previous organizations had offered, Scott pushed Veblen’s ideas closer and closer toward a dark vision, not dissimilar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Scott articulated what he called the ‘technate’, he proposed a continental state, including the territory of Canada, The United States, Mexico and Central America, to be run by a board of industry managers who had absolute authority. He even proposed the formation of a department of ‘Social Control’ which he later argued should engage in Pavlovian style social conditioning. In some sense this was an attempt to treat individuals too as if they were machines. Scott even suggested at one point that “man is a machine,” and that “if they are taken young enough…human beings can be conditioned not to do almost anything.”
This was a corruption of the abundance and prosperity which Taylor, Gantt and Veblen had envisioned. While Scott maintained the basic premise, engineers managing the economic machine, Scott pushed the analogy further by literally reducing humanity to machines. The stark comparison between Loeb’s liberal technocracy and Scott’s fascist technate also reveals a division in the aims of interwar political radicals. Each of the major ideological factions of the time, socialist, liberal and fascist, found their way into the dream of technocracy. Partially this was due to the failure on the part of the technocratic leadership to clearly articulate a philosophical or political stance. They vaguely articulated their visions and when they did finally articulate clear visions they were so blended with either socialist, liberal or fascist utopias that the character of technocracy lost its independence. This may explain why it is the case that the term technocracy can be used to describe a state which reflects all three simultaneously. It is a matter of which strain of its history survives in the memory.
Not long after the 1933 Chicago Convention Henry Loeb and the Continental Committee fell apart. This was partly due to the struggle with Technocracy Inc. over smaller chapters and partly due to a more general decrease in public interest. The New Deal and the entry of the United States into the second world war tore interest away from radical causes. Technocracy Inc. has managed to survive to today and is the closest thing to a clear descendent of Veblen’s Technical Alliance. The modern Technocracy Inc. even appears to embrace a liberal agenda, though their specific political goals, as with the earlier technocrats, are very vague. It seems that while they have rejected Scott’s fascistic attitudes they have maintained his anti-political beliefs. They state explicitly on their site that “The organization is non-political and active members of political parties are not allowed to belong to Technocracy.” Despite often drawing quotes from Scott, there is no clear discussion of his views on their site. Their organization appears to have undergone a sort of transformation during the second world war, though this area of their history demands greater research. As such there is an apparently rich history unique to Technocracy Inc. which deserves exploring but is best done somewhere else.
The Technocratic Party, appear to have the most in common with the ideological visions of Veblen and Loeb. It is also the only contemporary American technocratic organization which is interested in bringing technocratic goals into the political sphere. While the Party is still very small, it shares interests with numerous pre-existent American ideological factions. While the modern technocratic party largely attracts engineers, it has also apparently gained favor with some libertarians, socialists and patriots. As in the case of the old technocrats it may be the case that the vague promises of technocracy support this diversity of interests among it’s membership. However, there is certainly room to articulate a set of policy objectives which successfully captures the spirit of those political factions who perceive themselves to have been slighted by the dominant parties. Technocracy may yet offer a place of political hope for the disenfranchised left and right alike to rally behind.
-Written by Richard Young