‘Life in a Technocracy’, 1933: a soviet of technicians… in America? /2 (2021)

“A race of man superior in quality to any now known on earth”

by Federico Soldani – 16th Feb 2021

“I MET Howard Scott in 1919”, Harold Loeb wrote as the incipit of a foreword to his utopian essay “Life in a Technocracy” (1933) – introduced in a previous article in this series – a book divided into seven chapters. “He told me about technocracy. We talked over its many aspects during the summer. I had been reading up on Socialism, Guild Socialism, and the Soviets.”

Loeb’s utopian essay was written in the aftermath of the Great Depression, which followed 1929 Wall Street’s Great Crash, and while Roosevelt’s New Deal was taking off. The relation between the technocratic movement, that originated as such in 1919, and the New Deal was controversial, but many from the movement became deeply involved with the Roosevelt’s administration.

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The overall structure of ‘Life in a Technocracy’ might appear as gnostic, starting from chapter I “Blind Alley” – it was the progressive and New Deal intellectual Lewis Mumford who talked of a “blind alley” in a review of Veblen‘s ‘The Engineers and the Price System’ – and chapter II “The Escape.”

For Loeb it was capitalism that was a blind alley. Chapter IV is about “Government” or the external world, VI is about “Art” or the internal world – a chapter largely about psychological and at times even psychiatric considerations – and finally chapter VII “The Advent of Technocracy,” with technocracy largely identified with communism and presented in the quasi messianic terms of an “advent.”

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In his introduction to ‘Life in a Technocracy’, re-published in 1996 by Syracuse University Press, historian Howard Segal reminds us that “Technocracy’s premise was that the ability to produce and utilize energy was the true measure of human progress, for energy was necessary to run the machinery that produced the goods that improved life.”

“They [the technocrats, ed.] – Segal wrote – argued that until about 1700, progress had been limited by humans’ almost total dependency upon their bodies for energy production (a misreading of history that conveniently ignored that many technological advances prior to 1700 that had greatly reduced such dependency). Only with the industrial revolution of the eighteen and nineteen centuries did people become capable of increasing energy production significantly. Yet just when citizens were at last capable of producing enough energy to satisfy their basic needs, especially in the United States, greed and waste were undermining the efficient production of goods, as Veblen had exposed.”

Segal notes how Loeb’s “desire to integrate art and technology makes his ‘Life in a Technocracy’ distinctive within the Technocratic literature.” One of Loeb’s cousins was Peggy Guggenheim and he was the founder and financial supporter of “the expatriates’ important avant-garde magazine Broom (1921-1924).”

Howard Scott, considered a more pure technocrat, according to Loeb in his autobiography “disparaged the arts and expected technical men to take charge of society when the price system collapsed.” Capitalism and the modern world, for Loeb, with its process of techno-scientific rationalization conquered nature and caused the “domestication” of mankind. Eliminating capitalism and coupling this with what we would call today genetic engineering would produce “a race of man superior in quality to any now known on earth.” Social as well as genetic engineering.

Material abundance would be coupled with an equivalent social progress in a technocracy. A coupling that did not happen during the advent of modernity, according also to earlier texts which could be seen as proto-communist such as the French ‘Code of Nature’ (1755), already mentioned in these pages.

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In his introduction to Loeb’s ‘Life in a Technocracy’, Segal mentioned how earlier socialist thinkers presented ideas similar to those of Loeb.

Among them the utopian industrialist Robert Owen – who founded in North America the utopian town of New Harmony, Indiana – and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier – who inspired communities such as Utopia, Ohio – as well as the aristocrat Henri de Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon), considered a founder of French socialism.

Saint-Simon, who formulated ideas of what might be seen today as proto-communism as well as ideas forerunners of 20th century technocracy, fought in the American Revolution along with George Washington‘s close ally and friend the aristocrat Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (who gave to Washington as a gift a key of the Bastille that is still visible to this day at Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia). Saint-Simon was a key figure in both the American and the French Revolutions.

Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto – a man from a family of industrialists that financed his as well as Marx revolutionary activities- later wrote in his ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific‘: “the Reign of Terror was the reign of the non-possessing masses… Who was to lead and command? According to Saint-Simon, science and industry, both united by a new religious bond, destined to restore that unity of religious ideas which had been lost since the time of the Reformation – a necessarily mystic and rigidly hierarchic “new Christianity.”

Similar ideas related to nature, “proto-communism”, science as government, and “Christianity” are also to be found, again, in the French text ‘Code of Nature’ of 1755.

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Some of the themes treated by the technocracy literature are in my view extraordinarily current in 2021, for instance the concept of energy and its measurement as opposed to money and the “price system.” Energy rather than money “as the fundamental yardstick of value,” Segal wrote. Technocrats advocated a system based on energy and the abolition of money and the price system and saw the production and distribution of wealth “as – according to Loeb – an engineering problem.”

On my part, it has been truly remarkable to find these themes in the technocracy literature. Ignoring these authors, I came to the conclusion, observing the events of 2020, about the centrality of the concepts of both ‘energy’ and ‘price’ while discussing the current transformation of the human mind in the context of what I call ’21st century cyber-psychedelic capitalism’ (see ‘CyPsy mind?’ and ‘The economics of ego death’).

“Loeb’s utopia – Segal wrote – would issue each citizen a certificate (a form of credit card)” – an idea that presciently technocrats in the 1930s compared to that of “social credit” – “nontransferable and renewable annually, for a “proportionate share” of the nation’s energy production. As goods and services were purchased, deductions – the only taxes envisioned – would be made from that share and recorded both on the certificate and in a central office.”

“The cost of all goods and services – Segal continued – would represent the exact amount of human and natural energy, measured in ‘ergs’, required to produce them. […] Various unspecified new machines would virtually eliminate labor.” […] Freed from “that preoccupation with economic security which has always weighted the soul of man except on a few tropical islands”, the inhabitants in Loeb’s utopia would finally be able to devote their principal energies to other, higher pursuits: education, religion, recreation, and, above all, art. […] Loeb devotes half of his book to the encouragement of creative leisure pursuits. In this respect, his work is unique among the Technocratic writings of its day. […] Nearly all crime and disease (and thus nearly all legal disputes) would disappear amid Technocracy’s general affluence, because poverty is allegedly the primary cause of both.

For Loeb, it was artists, teachers and philosophers – as well as psychiatrists, according to the chapter about ‘Art’ – not economists, who were supposed to address the unprecedented amount of human time and energies liberated by the disappearance of poverty – and we could add the disappearance of labor – in a technocracy. Such was his humanistic addition to the purely technical regime that was envisioned to follow the collapse of capitalism.

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According to Segal, technocrats saw their technocratic solutions as fully implementable “provided that the majority of citizens, with or without the consent of their elected representatives, want it. […] Loeb would eliminate “popular voting and, for that matter, politics in general.”

Renaming the political state “the industrial system”, Loeb’s scheme would reduce government to the “administration” of issues “subject to measurement.”

“The sole function of conventional politics would be “showmanship” to keep the public amused: “receiving distinguished guests – Loeb wrote – laying corner stones, making speeches about the rights of man, American initiative, justice. Its offices would be elective, thereby titillating the egos of those who like to think they are running things. Prominent clowns will, doubtless, be frequently elected.”

“Missing from even so sophisticated a vision as Loeb’s is – still according to Segal – any serious consideration of the fact that these seemingly apolitical leaders would still exercise political power, any sense of the inevitable persistence of political power in all societies, regardless of the major or minor role of conventional politicians.”

“How much more dignified – Loeb added in ‘Life in a Technocracy’ – would our chief executive [i.e., any recent U.S. president, ed.] have been if he had spent four hours a day steering the scoop of a steam shovel! And how much more useful!”

(2 – second of a series, previous article here)

(In the photo, The Key to the Bastille, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘Life in a Technocracy’, 1933: a soviet of technicians… in America? /2 (2021)," in PsyPolitics, February 16, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/02/16/life-in-a-technocracy-1933-a-soviet-of-technicians-in-america-2-2021/.

Last Updated on March 29, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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