The American Utopia

Eduard Batalov

Chapter III
The Evolution of U.S. Capitalism and the Modern American Utopia

2. The Technocratic Utopia

The technocratic utopia consolidated its positions considerably and moved to the foreground in the postwar years. Retaining the principles, ideals and orientations formulated by Veblen, Scott and their followers half a century ago, modern technocratic utopians have adjusted and complemented them, added subtle theoretical touches, and geared them to the interests, orientations and expectations of those rather large groups which connect the survival of bourgeois civilization with scientific and technological progress, with the use of its advances to stabilize the existing social relations and with stronger positions of the social stratum of professionals often described as the technostructure.

Utopian elements are visible in the sociological theories Daniel Bell, Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Kenneth Galbraith formulated in the 1960s and 1970s ("industrial society", "post‑industrial state", "technetronic society"). A utopian spirit is present in the works of Stuart Chase, the dean of American technocracy and author of The Tragedy of Waste (1925) and The Most Probable World (1968), a number of prominent futurologists such as Herman Kahn, Norbert Wiener, B. Bruce‑Briggs and several outstanding scientists such as Burrhus Skinner.


It goes without saying the technocratic utopians' concepts of the social ideal or of the ways to establish the utopian society differ more or less substantially, depending on the authors' political stand, the range of their intellectual grasp, the extent of their personal experience and on their specialization in this or that science. Still, these concepts share a number of common features, and this makes it possible to classify them as a single trend in modern utopia.

Stability is central to the hierarchy of values making up the composite ideal of the modern technocratic utopia. This was expressed with the utmost clarity in a small but exhaustive article entitled "A Modest Utopia" and published by Stuart Chase in 1975. Noting that modern American (and not only American) society faces difficult problems such as the arms race, the energy crisis, unemployment, pollution, dwindling natural resources, etc., Chase concludes that, given all this, mankind can find salvation only in utopia viewed as a planetwide system established by purposeful action based on rationality and efficiency. [1] He quotes John Platt: "The world is now too dangerous for anything less than Utopia." [2] "The logic of the situation, whatever the politics," Chase writes, "runs increasingly in the direction of a single civilization where a steady‑state condition is dominant. . . . The idea of a world state has been discussed for centuries, but the steady‑state society is a relatively new concept," [3] yet its outlines, Chase holds, can already be imagined.

First and foremost, a steady‑state society stabilizes population growth, its rate gradually diminishing to zero; this, the author of the project asserts, invoking Aldous Huxley's ideas, is the key to the solution of all other problems. "A steady‑state society, thus stabilized, can and should assure adequate living for every human being—food, shelter, education, health protection (though not a car and a color TV). This should go a long way toward stabilizing the human family. It should go a long way toward providing useful work for all. With slums abolished and meaningful occupation developed, the crime rate should drop, and juvenile delinquency all but disappear. One good working def

The Futurist, Vol. IX, No. 5, October 1975, pp. 249‑50.

Ibid., p. 252.

Ibid., p. 250.


inition of Utopia might be a place where everyone feels he has an important role. The steady‑state society should make considerable progress in that direction.

"It would demand, of course, the conservation of the ecosphere and the biosphere; the balance of nature respected and held firmly at par.

"War would have to be disallowed, perhaps with a planetary guard in command of all nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons." Energy and material resources would be regulated, transport problems solved and so on and so forth—and all this given strong centralized government. "The planet will be administered, one might guess, by a consortium of functional Planning Authorities in charge of vital material resources; of the oceans with their riches and fragile food chains; of international pollution abatement; of satellites and global communication, trade routes, and international finance. Gold will be strictly for dentists and jewellers. Nations will continue to control local affairs insofar as they are not in conflict with steady‑state priorities." [1]

Essentially, there is nothing novel in Chase's project, but it deserves to be mentioned because it lays such great emphasis on the ideal of stability—a typical (although not always clearly articulated) feature of the modern technocratic utopia.

True, classical utopian projects, too, often presented society as stable. But that was the stability of harmony, of the absolute, of a society which had reached the uppermost limits of perfection. The modern technocratic utopia is another matter. Here, the yearning for stability is dictated not only by the realization that Earth's resources are finite but also by the desire to preserve a certain state of society, albeit quite far—and some utopians admit that—from perfection. This is the stability of a system threatened by disintegration, stability as a means of survival. John Kenneth Galbraith has once remarked that "for any organization, as for any organism, the goal or objective that has a natural assumption of preeminence is the organization's own survival. [2] However, the meaning of self‑preserva

Ibid., p. 252.

2  John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1969, p. 167.


tion to a system (and its realization by the latter) is different at different stages. Most frequently, self‑preservation becomes a utopian ideal at the stage of disintegration, when survival becomes the system's highest goal—a rule demonstrated by Plato and confirmed by many politicians, sociologists and natural scientists today.

The technocratic utopia does not rule out certain social changes. Moreover, it insists on them (and here it cannot be accused of being static) since it is by partial changes from within that the desired stability is deemed to be made possible. But, unlike Plato, whose stability was based on "justice", today's utopian technocrat connects stability with organization based on rationality and efficiency. As to "justice", its specific expression is the principle of meritocracy—each man remunerated according to his "merit". [1]

Meritocracy does provide all citizens with a certain minimum of benefits which, the technocrat holds, will be high enough for his utopian society to be called a "welfare state". True, the Club of Rome reports, especially Limits to Growth, the response they generated and, most importantly, the economic difficulties the United States encountered in the 1970s and 1980s, did dampen the technocrat's optimism somewhat. Nevertheless, the "welfare state" ideal is firmly established as part of the technocratic utopia which promises a guaranteed, minimum of profit, a certain measure of personal security, a considerable easing of human labor, as well as recreation.

However, operating beyond the universal guaranteed minimum is the principle that the evaluation of the individual and the remuneration society accords him differ depending on his merit and his intellect determined by special tests.

In the classical utopia, the principle of justice underlay the authority of the philosopher‑prince as legitimate; similarly, the modern technocratic utopia uses the principle of meritocracy to justify the claims to power made by the scientist and the engineer. Bell maintains that in a "post‑industrial society" they should occupy the same place the businessman, and the industrial manager held in "industrial society".

1  For principles of meritocracy, see Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post‑Industrial Society.


Today's utopian technocrat does not aim directly at eliminating the existing institutions of power. But he would like to transfer control over them from professional politicians and businessmen to experts who would restructure these institutions to meet the needs of science and technology, possibly making them more rigid and centralized.

In a "scientifically managed" utopia, where organization dominates man, determining all the major parameters of his activity, the limits to individual freedom are set strictly functionally. Freedom is not an end, not a condition for the development and existence of a harmonious personality but only a means of maintaining society's rational and effective functioning and stability. In this respect, the utopian technocrats follow in the footsteps of Howard Scott; the only difference is that they are less cynical and promise more material benefits in exchange for freedom.

Kahn and Bruce‑Briggs claim that in a "post‑industrial society" all men will live at about the level enjoyed by the high‑income groups, like "the managers and professionals" in the 1970s. "They have very large homes filled with gadgets, and often have two homes, one just for vacations. They have day servants, once or twice a week, but we do not need them in our post‑industrial society—there have long been dreams of household robots or trained simians, and why not? . . . They travel frequently both on business and pleasure, penetrating all parts of the globe. When not dieting they eat well, whether the cosmopolitan food of the East or the grade A beefstakes [sic] of the West. They have two or more cars, a Cadillac or a Mercedes‑Benz, a station wagon, and a sports car for the kids. Many of them have planes or boats. Their children go to graduate school and do not start work until they damn well like it, and the parents do not seem to mind. Of course, they may have the mild alcoholism of too many martinis, neurotic wives popping pills, junior who is wild and undisciplined, and little Sally who is sleeping around." [1]

This cozy picture, drawn with good‑natured irony, offers little explanation of the way a utopian society based on technocratic principles may function. But it is possible to visit such a society—through the good offices of B. F. Skinner, prominent American psychologist, sociologist

1  Herman Kahn, B. Bruce‑Briggs, op. cit., pp. 229‑30.


and Harvard professor. His utopian novel Walden Two, published back in 1948, has long earned the status of a classic and his views are regarded as a classical expression of modern technocratic ideology in its behaviorist version.

"Walden Two is, of course, science fiction," Skinner wrote many years later. "I was not saying, 'This is the way it should be.' I was simply describing one possible culture designed on behavioral principles. The book does not seem to me to have been too bad a guess. It was written nearly thirty years ago and seems to me more relevant than ever." [1]

The novel is about an imagined utopian community of some one thousand members. One thousand healthy, cheerful, happy and content people living—the author stresses this—not on a desert island and not in the 21st century but in postwar America with all its problems and contradictions.

This is especially important to Skinner who, in the late 1940s, arrived at the conclusion proclaimed (though for entirely different reasons) by the left radicals many years later: utopia has ceased to exist; what used to be considered utopian is perfectly possible today. "The Good Life is waiting for us—here and now," exclaims Frazier, the community's founder. "I almost fancied I heard a Salvation Army drum throbbing in the distance. . . . At this very moment we have the necessary techniques, both material and psychological, to create a full and satisfying life for everyone." [2]

Later we heard similar assertions from "critical" philosophers and sociologists who immediately added, however, that while the necessary technical prerequisites were already available, the political conditions for realizing the utopia were not yet ready. But Skinner does not recognize these obstacles. The traditional opinion that people can build a perfect society through political transformation is a fallacy, asserts Skinner's Frazier. "Political action was of no use in building a better world, and men of good will had better turn to other measures as soon as possible". [3] These measures are science, specifically psychology, or, to be more

The American Political Science Review, Vol. LXIX, March 1975, p.228.

2  B. F. Skinner, Walden Two, Macmillan, Toronto, 1970, p. 193.

3  Ibid., p. 14.


precise, behaviorism. A "technology of behavior" based on behavioral principles, Skinner maintains, can achieve that which politics cannot ensure.

Frazier (Skinner) goes on to explain that the behavioral principle of "positive reinforcement" makes it possible easily to solve problems which have plagued utopians for centuries. "The things that can happen to us fall into three classes. To some things we are indifferent. Other things we like—we want them to happen, and we take steps to make them happen again. Still other things we don't like—we don't want them to happen and we take steps to get rid of them or keep them from happening again. . . . If it's in our power to create any of the situations which a person likes or to remove any situation he doesn't like, we can control his behavior. When he behaves as we want him to behave, we simply create a situation he likes, or remove one he doesn't like. As a result, the probability that he will behave that way again goes up, which is what we want. Technically it's called 'positive reinforcement'." [1]

This "positive reinforcement" is what shapes life in Walden Two. There is no external coercion in the community—neither an army nor a police nor courts nor prisons nor overseers. There is a code of conduct drawn up on the basis of "positive reinforcement" and gladly observed by all members of the community. But the code exists mostly for newcomers. Those born in the community are handled by psychologists from the moment of their birth; these experts bring them up fully in accordance with "behavioral engineering" principles, taking care that now and later the children not only do what they like but also like only what should be liked. Here, the last word belongs to "behavioral engineers" making up a Board of Planners. "Our only government is a Board of Planners," Frazier explains. "The name goes back to the days when Walden Two existed only on paper. There are six Planners, usually three men and three women. . . . The Planners are charged with the success of the community. They make policies, review the work of the Managers, keep an eye on the state of the nation in general. They also have certain judicial functions." [2] Aside from the Planners and Managers who are

Ibid., pp. 259‑60.

2  Ibid., p. 54.


responsible for the operation of functional divisions and services, the community also includes scientists who conduct experimental research and issue recommendations to "behavioral engineers".

Neither rank‑and‑file community members nor even scientists, Frazier adds, have any say in determining the composition of the Boards of Planners and Managers, but that does not bother them at all—the important thing is that they are happy. When Frazier's opponents charge that there is neither freedom nor democracy in his utopian community, he calmly agrees.

More than 20 years after Walden Two Skinner published a book that scandalized the academic (and not only the academic) community. The book, entitled Beyond the Freedom and Dignity, claimed that the concepts of freedom and human dignity were obsolete and fictitious. But this view, expressed by Skinner directly and openly in 1971, had long been expounded by Frazier, his alter ego, in virtually the same language.

No, there is no democracy  in Frazier's community—because it is not needed. Democracy "isn't, and can't be, the best form of government, because it's based on a scientifically invalid conception of man". [1] No, there is no freedom—because it is not needed either., "Dictatorship and freedom —predestination and free will. . . . What are these but pseudoquestions of linguistic origin?" [2] Frazier proudly declares that "we can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. . . . By a careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, the desires, the wishes. The curious thing is that in that case the question of freedom never arises." [3] It does not because "we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community". [4]

Soon after it appeared, Walden Two was attacked by pub

1  Ibid., p. 273.

2  Ibid., p. 297.

3  Ibid., p. 262.

4  Ibid., p. 297.


lic figures, authors and scientists, some calling Skinner a fascist. In all probability, Skinner expected such accusations: in his novel, Frazier's opponents call him a fascist, to which he replies that he is neither a fascist nor a democrat. The attacks came not only from the left but also from the right wing, from the opponents of scientism who accused the author of Walden Two of unwarranted denigration of American democracy.

It is indeed obvious that Skinner's criticism of democracy, freedom and other "obsolete" values sometimes closely resembles the curses the Nazis used to heap on them. Skinner, of course, is no fascist. He is one of those gifted but socially narrow‑minded professionals of the positivistic type who see science, especially their own discipline, as a cure‑all and man as an aggregate of "scientifically" verifiable processes and phenomena. They naively believe that in a society ruled by the laws of physics, biology and other natural sciences, politics would be useless, social conflicts would be eliminated at one stroke and complete harmony would be established. They either ignore or dismiss as "metaphysics" the fact that society cannot be governed by the laws operating in this or that sphere of nature, that man cannot be reduced to the level of an animal or a machine.

A closer look at Skinner's community shows that its citizens are not really people but rather beings resembling robots. The all‑round personality, the dream of thinkers of the past, has no place in his utopia. The Procrustean logic of "behavioral engineering" cannot accommodate a harmonious and free individual. A model member of Skinner's community is not only depersonalized but also dehumanized. Man is human only as long as he retains (and realizes through his activity) a connection with culture as a concentrated expression of the experience of the preceding generations, with objects representing their creative efforts, with history. This connection colors man's reaction to various stimuli. Man does not simply respond automatically to external orders, his reaction is adjusted by culture (in this or that form), specifically by ethics and the knowledge of the past—his own and his own nation's. Incidentally, fascism took this into account and declared war on culture, trying to produce a depersonalized man ignorant of his own history and acting like an automaton.


Essentially, Skinner suggests the same thing, the only difference being that the individual would receive his orders not from a drill sergeant but from the "psychologist"—that is, a well‑balanced program of behavior—inside him. No wonder that Walden Two distrusts history which may, all of a sudden, disrupt the path from "stimulus" to "reaction". It is perfectly possible that, could Skinner realize his project on a large scale, the result would be an updated and improved version of Huxley's Brave New World. And should the Planners (who are supposed to operate virtually uncontrolled) include people not only dictatorially but also fascistically minded, the "happy" utopia would turn into a concentration camp. In 1967 a group of young people established the Twin Oaks community which, as originally conceived, was to be based on the principles described in Walden Two. However, life forced Twin Oaks to alter these principles so drastically that this experiment can be regarded as a practical refutation of Skinner's project. [1]

And yet, the community built to Skinner's blueprint has one quality that the utopian technocrat finds valuable—it guarantees the survival of the whole. At any rate, he has stated repeatedly that "survival of Western civilization" is his prime objective. This is an important admission in that it records the change in the priority of ideals typical of many modern Western utopians. Their goal is not a perfect society but preservation of the existing society (even though in a somewhat modified form).

Thus the modern technocratic utopia opens no new humanitarian vistas and promises essentially nothing beyond what the "welfare state" promises and, apparently, can provide. At the same time it demonstrates that the "nonpolitical" dictatorship of science (and scientists)—should it, by some miracle, be established—would be no more humanitarian and, ironically, no more efficient than the currently existing dictatorship of the monopoly bourgeoisie which uses technocrats but gives them only limited leeway. As for the efficiency of social system (from a small group to society as a whole), it depends not only on rational organization but also on the degree to which the acting individuals realize their personal potential.

1  See: Kathleen Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment; The First Five Years of Twin Oaks Community, Morrow, New York, 1973.

SOURCE: Batalov, Eduard. The American Utopia, translated from the Russian by Dmitry Belyavsky (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), Chapter III, The Evolution of U.S. Capitalism and the Modern American Utopia, section 2, pp. 122-131.

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