The American Utopia

Eduard Batalov

Chapter II
American Utopia in the 19th and the First Half of the 20th Centuries

5. The Technocratic Utopia

A new social utopia type began to take shape in the United States in the 1930s. This was the so‑called techno­ [102/103] cratic utopia, which subsequently played an important part in American culture and political thought.

It reflected those changes in America's social consciousness and interpretation of social ideals which had affected first and foremost, part of the industrial bourgeoisie and experts in science and technology and had been caused, on the one hand, by rapid advances in science and technology and the social change they produced and, on the other, by the crisis of laissez‑faire liberalism, the transition from free competition capitalism to monopoly capitalism, and the development of the working‑class movement.

Aimed at a radical transformation of the bourgeois‑democratic institutions of government, which it saw as the only way to save and consolidate capitalism, the technocratic utopia broke with the ideals (and even with the rhetoric) of democratic self‑government and proclaimed the ideal of a centralized society built according to the principles of rationality and efficiency. In that world, all life of society, all institutions, relations and values are determined by positivistically interpreted laws of science (natural science) and technology. The principles which operate in the limited sphere of human activity are extended—fully in the spirit of scientific and technological fetishism—to all spheres of activity, ousting and replacing social laws and thus appearing universal. Man is subordinate to machine; he loses his identity and becomes an easily replaceable cog in a giant bureaucracy which is built with the help of modern science and technology and according to their principles.

The second salient feature of the technocratic utopia—and a logical consequence of the approach described above—is that society is ruled by the masters of technology and by scientists (this is what makes it possible to call this type of utopia "technocratic"). The result is a latter‑day version of a utopian society headed by a wise ruler; the only difference is that he is a technocrat, not a humanitarian philosopher.

Despite its break with the democratic tradition of the American utopia and social consciousness, the technocratic utopia attracted many Americans by its promises. In the words of Robert Walker, "technocracy . . . appealed to a broad stripe in the national character by arguing that the country should become more—rather than less‑produc [103/104] tive and at the same time more efficient." [1] V. L. Parrington, Jr. agrees but adds that the technocratic utopia attracted Americans not only by promises of abundance but also by images of a technological world so dear to the American's heart. "This willingness to accept the promise of plenty," he notes, "this faith in the fruits of the machine, is typical of the American dream. For a hundred years and more we have beguiled ourselves with visions of a utopia which was a sort of mechanical heaven where the goods coming off the conveyor belts were always bigger and better and more functional. The Technocrats capitalized on this faith with their romantic and frequently exaggerated promises." [2]

The technocratic utopian projects most popular in the United States of the 1930s were those developed by a group of engineers, economists and architects led by Howard Scott. In late 1931 and early 1932 a group of experts under Howard Scott studied the relationship between technological development and the economy. In April 1932 the Energy Survey of North America was created on the basis of that group. Members of the Survey were soon called "technocrats". [3] Subsequently, the term "technocracy" acquired a broader, more general meaning and was no longer associated directly with Scott's group.

As could be expected, the technocrats disclaimed both the utopian nature of their projects and their involvement in the utopian tradition. Berating "utopians and socialists" for basing their constructs on "a priori objectives", "eventual desired human goals", "value orientations" and the like, they did point to the actual substantive features of utopianism. This, however, did not prevent the technocrats themselves from claiming to have found the perfect solution to the problems which had defied authors of projects based on "moral or philosophical constructs", and from advancing a typically utopian model of a "rationally harmonized society". "Between 1933 and 1936 the Scottians, who defined technocracy as a form of social organization, drafted an idealized social system based on their assump

The Reform Spirit in America, p. 216.

2  V. L. Parrington, Jr., op. cit., p. 203.

3  Henry Elsner, Jr., The Technocrats, Prophets of Automation, Syracuse University Press, 1967, pp. 1‑2.


tions about the nature of modern science and society. They could not imagine anyone choosing the austerity of a nonindustrial world; and, they reasoned, having elected to partake of the material benefits of a high‑energy civilization, man would have to organize himself around its immutable laws and principles in a way that would maximize efficiency and harmony. Following this reasoning, their thinking led them to construct mentally the most rigorously mechanical society Yankee ingenuity had yet devised." [1]

The technocratic utopia is shot through with the spirit of criticism of American society—its politics, economy and culture. But this criticism is very unlike that offered by romantic or socialist utopians. For all the distinctions that separated them, those utopians criticized society for restrictions on freedom and democracy, suppression of individuality, and absence of the true equality of opportunity. Making references to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they suggested blueprints for a more humane, free, egalitarian and democratic society because, they held, democracy and freedom were indispensable for abundance, prosperity, personal security and meaningful recreation.

The utopian technocrats abandon that type of critical tradition; in their opinion, the root of all evil is not a lack or shortage of democracy but the lack of harmony born of the disbalance between the logic of efficiency and the logic of social relations in conditions of bourgeois democracy. To prevent social chaos and save the nation, it is indispensable to establish harmony between the social structure and the imperatives of science and technology, or, to be more precise, to subordinate the former to the latter. But democracy, the technocrat maintains, is essentially incapable of coping with the task. Decisions have always been and will always be taken by a minority; this is perfectly reasonable, and the important thing is for this minority to be competent and not to engage in pointless games of politics while taking decisions on important matters, not to stage the usual cheap

1  William E. Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream. The Technocrat Movement, 1900‑1941, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, p. 131.


political shows.

Like the romantic utopian, the technocrat would like to take power out of the hands of politicians and to build a depoliticized society. However, unlike the romanticist who sees the meaning of depoliticization in investing each individual with power and thus eliminating centralized government, the technocrat would like to replace political institutions with organizations of scientific and technological experts and hand power over to a technocratic elite.

The Scottian technocrats pictured a powerful social hierarchy which Scott defined as the "technate", a single continent‑wide corporate structure (Scott held that it should include, aside from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America) in which social and production divisions coincided. These "functional divisions" were to comprise industry, services, education, health care, etc. They would also include "certain social and quasi‑political sequences to handle research, foreign relations, armed forces and 'social control'." [1]

In Scott's view, the technate was to be a pyramid, with functional divisions at its base, each represented by a director and all directors making up a Continental Control Board which would be responsible for all important decisions bearing on the functioning of the social mechanism as a whole; at the top of the pyramid there would be a Continental Director elected by the members of the Board and responsible for the normal operation of the technate. As a result, instead of an ineffective democracy with its three branches of power and its mechanisms of control and regulation, America would be blessed with an efficient Director relying on a narrow group of top experts.

The technocrats did not deny that their system was not only undemocratic but also inhumane in the sense in which humanism and humanitarianism had been interpreted heretofor. But they held that humanism, freedom and democracy were worthless in a technological civilization since they were not directly indispensable for rationality and efficiency. Why should man, merely a human animal composed of atoms, they argued, need freedom and democracy? Man is "an engine taking potential energy . . . and con

Ibid., p. 138.


verting [it] into heat, work, and body tissue", [1] while freedom and democracy introduce anarchy and arbitrariness into a rational system. They claimed that while the technate, ruled by engineers and scientists, would mean a dictatorship, it would be a dictatorship not of an individual but of science; people could expect only good from it, for this dictatorship would be totally objective and free of any preferences or mistakes.

The technocrats proposed that the technate include a special division dealing with social control to ensure that "human relations be subordinated to efficiency". The institutions regulating human relations on the basis of a subjective approach and "passion", like the "judgment by the twelve good men" were to be abolished; the matters they dealt with were to be decided "by the most impersonal and scientific methods available". [2]

The technocrats also intended to radically restructure the economy in order to abolish pursuit of profit as the goal of production and change the system of pricing and distribution of material goods. "The cost of any particular commodity," Howard Scott wrote, "would be determined entirely by the energy consumed in the process of its production and delivery to the point of consumption." [3] The plan was to abolish money, replacing it with "energy certificates" each state‑employed worker under the "energy contract" would receive. "Such a period of service should not exceed four hours per day, four consecutive days at a shift, and 165 days per year. For a period of about twenty years, from the age of twenty‑five to forty‑five, this period of service would cover the fulfillment of the energy contract.” [4] The technocrats promised to involve all able‑bodied people in useful work and thus eliminate unemployment; to ensure equal profits for all, including the technocracy which, Scott assured, would not enjoy any material privileges; and to balance the ratio of production, thus creating a stable and crisis‑free economy.

Technocracy Study Course, N. Y. Technocracy, Inc., 1934, pp. 105, 117. Quoted in: W. E. Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream, p. 134.

2  Ibid., p. 141.

3  Passport to Utopia. . ., p. 235.

4  Ibid., pp. 234‑35.


Essentially, economic and social stability, a new ideal for the American Utopia, was the prime objective of the technocratic utopians. Besides, they were becoming increasingly convinced that the level of socioeconomic stability was inversely proportionate to the level of political activity and directly dependent on the degree of centralization of government. It was not surprising that the technocrats regarded the army as the most efficient and rational organization and, with the advent of World War II, they called for a nationwide labor conscription.

The concrete forms of the technocratic utopia which it assumed originally in the 1930s proved to be short‑lived, but as a distinct type, this utopia took firm root in the mainstream of the American socioutopian tradition.

Ideologically and theoretically, Scott and his colleagues in "Technocracy, Inc." did not invent the technocratic utopia. Its formation was to a high extent influenced by Thorstein Veblen's ideas about rational organization as the substantive basis of social forms capable of ensuring effective functioning of capitalist society against the background of growing social tensions on the global, regional or local scale. Curbing the unruly market and social elements, generally regulating social processes to make them rational and effective, nominating "engineers" to rule society—all these ideas had been formulated, in one form or another, in Veblen's book The Engineers and the Price System. Scott's plan was merely an ambitious attempt to project Veblen's ideas onto a specific social situation and on this foundation to build an alternative (given the utopian pluralism of the 1930s) utopia. This utopia was crude, simplistic and theoretically artless (the fate of almost all initial forms of new utopian types). But as a type, it was a sign of the times. The technocratic utopia reflected not only the crisis of the traditional political and economic forms brought on by the changes in the structure and functions of the state and the market which became clear in the mid‑1930s. It also reflected the disintegration of the traditional constructs of consciousness which was manifested in the crisis of the liberal ideology and the consequent rift among liberals.

The idea of a direct correlation between bourgeois democracy and the efficiency of the institutions it generated and sanctified, including economic institutions, that matu [108/109] red in the thinking of the third estate and forced its way into the political science and political practice of the 17th‑19th‑century bourgeois revolutions, that idea emerged as one of the fundamental ideological precepts of 19th‑century liberalism. The sociopolitical practice of "mass" society, that is, bourgeois society at the time of imperialism, showed that in the new conditions traditional democracy was no longer capable of ensuring the former efficiency of social institutions.

One of the most important lessons of the technocratic utopia was perhaps the fact that it demonstrated not only the volatile and unstable nature of the links between democracy and efficiency, but also the readiness of many Americans to sacrifice, in certain conditions, the traditional democratic values to the promises of "abundance", "rationality", "efficiency" and "order". On this scale, this was a new development in social consciousness; and it prompted critical remarks from some in the Left to the effect a fascist‑type dictatorship could be established in the United States.

From the mid‑1930s to the mid‑1960s the technocratic utopia consolidated its positions in American culture; naturally, this influenced the status and functions of this utopia in the national perceptions. But, having consolidated its positions, this utopia was never to absorb, let alone eliminate, other types of utopia. On the contrary, the 1960s proved that each new stage in the development of technocratic consciousness triggered a "democratic", romantic or socialist reaction (and this was reflected in the sphere of utopia), simultaneously generating social despair and pessimism expressed in negative utopia and antiutopia.

SOURCE: Batalov, Eduard. The American Utopia, translated from the Russian by Dmitry Belyavsky (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), Chapter II, American Utopia in the 19th and the First Half of the 20th Centuries, section 5, pp. 102-109.

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