‘Life in a Technocracy’, 1933: a soviet of technicians… in America? /3 (2021)

A system that can handle an abundance of nearly every kind of commodity without consigning a good part of the population to distress

by Federico Soldani – 18th Feb 2021

In his 2019 ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism. A Manifesto’ author Aaron Bastani did not make explicit reference to the literature about technocracy or authors such as Veblen or Loeb. However, many of the ideas in the book, including communism as related to concepts of automation and technocracy were prominent in the literature of the American technocrats.

In the third and last part of the book, ‘Paradise Found,’ he criticizes “A narrow technocratic elite” and what he calls “elite technocracy” and makes an appeal to “Promethean” ambitions. Interestingly, he opened chapter 1, ‘The Great Disorder’, with a quote from Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in which the main character of the novel was explicitly modelled after Harold Loeb.

Bastani quotes from Aristotle‘s first book of ‘Politics’, the original quote being the following: “We can imagine a situation in which each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which the poet relates that ‘Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus.’ A shuttle would then weave of itself, and a plectrum would do its own harp-playing. In this situation managers would not need subordinates and masters would not need slaves.”

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“Technology, the science of the industrial arts, has been developed under capitalism” – wrote Loeb opening the first chapter of his ‘Life in a Technocracy’. “It is possible that the profit incentive, which is the heart of capitalism, was necessary to promote the growth of this new transforming science.” “Capitalism can only function when goods are scarce,” hence according to the author when technology will destroy scarcity it will also destroy capitalism: “there is a danger that the offspring, technology, will destroy its parent, the capitalist world.”

“If capitalism cannot adjust itself to its offspring, technology, a new system must be found to replace capitalism, a system that can handle an abundance of nearly every kind of commodity without consigning a good part of the population to distress.” While addressing the crisis of capitalism during the Great Crash of Wall Street of 1929 Loeb wrote repeatedly of “the psychological panic of 1929.” ‘Life in a Technocracy’ is rich in psychological lexicon.

“Men live by the production, distribution, and consumption of goods. Labor is required for the first two functions. During many eras brute force was used to induce men to labor. Later more subtle incentives were devised. The most effective of these is known as profit. By the lure of gain men were persuaded to work even when the gratification of their appetites was removed several degrees from the result of their efforts. Profit depends on price.”

Loeb also noted how one of the mechanisms that kept capitalism alive, “the settlement of relatively empty territories” was not working anymore as it did in the past since “territories have now been largely occupied. The frontier has disappeared.” Nowadays, as we deal with the digital frontier, are capitalism profits somehow moving from atoms to bits?

A language full of medical metaphors abound as well as psychological lexicon in ‘Life in a Technocracy’, in line with the explosion we are witnessing nowadays in politics and in the public discourse more generally, for instance in this passage:

“To cure a malady, its source must first be located. Our industrial difficulties are due to the breakdown of our system of distribution” (in turn, under capitalism, related to the price system). “Therapeutic measures that recommend tinkering with production or consumption are, at best, palliatives; at worst, nonsense. Most diagnosticians cannot see this because the system of distribution in vogue under capitalism is the essence of capitalism. And capitalism has assumed a religious sanctity. To attack its tenets has become a heresy punished by social contempt when the law fails to take action.”

Loeb also attacked what he called “the Mysticism of Money”: “The great crimes of today, the crimes that are felt to undermine society, are not sacrilege or treason, offenses against church or state, but social heresy, that is to say, offenses against the current money creed.”

Chapter I ends with a consideration that reminds contemporary authors, also dealing with themes of politics and psychology, such as Mark Fisher or Slavoj Žižek – both quoted on this topic in Bastani’s 2019 ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ – called “Capitalist Realism.”

Bastani wrote: “Capitalism realism is best summed up with a single sentence: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” and specifies how “this phrase is attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, although Jameson himself is unclear as to its original source.”

In closing Chapter I ‘Blind Alley’, Loeb wrote: “Six thousand years, more or less, have been required to harness the forces of nature. Will another six thousand years be necessary to check the forces which have impelled society to found its faith in greed? For though economic competition, greed operating under a set of rules, has benefited, at least materially, that portion of humanity which has indulged in it; economic competition, the free-for-all, called capitalism, is now breeding a condition which is imperiling the complicated structure and the very civilization of the Western society. Is the alternative to capitalism so dreadful that it may not even be envisaged?”

Is Loeb’s ‘Life in a Technocracy’ the original source of, or at least the inspiration for, so-called capitalist realism?

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Co-founder of Bolshevism with Lenin was psychiatrist Alexander Bogdanov (in the photo), of whom we have previously discussed in these pages. He was, among other things, the founder of a discipline of general organization called tektology, that was used for 5-year economic planning in the USSR, seen today as a precursor of systems theory and of cybernetics, the basis of the current automation revolution.

Harold Loeb’s family company was Kuhn Loeb & Co., a significant financial backer of Russian and Bolshevik revolutionary leaders and of Leon Trotsky in particular. Trotsky was an intimate friend of the socialist Alfred Adler, the psychoanalyst of the “will to power,” a pioneer in bringing psychological concepts outside the clinic emphasizing the role of the wider society on individual psychology, seen nowadays as a forerunner of community psychiatry.

Of note in terms of history of psychiatry and its interrelations with politics, James Loeb, son of the founder of Kuhn Loeb & Co., was the main financer of Emil Kraepelin, considered to this day the father of biological or scientific psychiatry.

According to the website of Harvard University Press “it was during [his] time in Munich that Loeb’s enormous interest in and support of medical and psychiatric institutions became evident. In the early 1900s he stayed for some time with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, who recommended him to Emil Kraepelin in Munich. His association with Kraepelin led to the founding of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie in Munich. This German Research Institute for Psychiatry received the largest combined benefaction from Loeb: one million marks to establish it, further gifts until his death, and one million dollars at his death.”

Trotsky was living in New York City with his family in 1917 and became involved with the American socialist movement before travelling to Russia. On the 17th of May he arrived in Russia to be a political protagonist during the months leading to the October, Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

(3 – third of a series, previous articles here, 1 and 2)

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘Life in a Technocracy’, 1933: a soviet of technicians… in America? /3 (2021)," in PsyPolitics, February 18, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/02/18/life-in-a-technocracy-1933-a-soviet-of-technicians-in-america-3-2021/.

Last Updated on February 20, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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