“Now that we have harnessed the lightning, curbed the plague, and circumvented the flood, it would seem reasonable to survey once more the taboos which were originally intended to propitiate a terrible and temperamental deity“
by Federico Soldani – 3rd Apr 2021
The chapter about ‘Art’ of ‘Life in a Technocracy’, as discussed in the previous three articles in this series, is the longest of the book at it takes about a quarter of the entire text of Harold Loeb’s post-capitalist and technocratic utopia.
“Consumers as such will need no organization, no protection” – the chapter about ‘Art’ continued – “since every consumer is a producer. Men would differ not in consumptive power but in productive function. […]
The Russian Communists have had to vary consumptive power, have had to reward effort at different rates, in order to encourage skill and care. This relegation of Marx’s fundamental principle, that everyone should contribute according to his ability and receive according to his needs, is considered necessary because in Russia consuming power is so low that it has become, or rather, had remained, the pre-eminent interest of life. When food is lacking, hunger overshadows all other needs. Consequently nothing is more effective as a stimulus to effort than the promise of more food, clothing, and so forth.
In an American Technocracy, inheritors of the productive machinery evolved in American capitalism, there would be no lack of material goods. Consequently the offer of more food and clothing could not be an effective stimulus of effort. In fact, even today with most Americans not far above the subsistence level the probability of material reward is not the basic incentive of American energy. Those enjoying full satisfaction of their primary needs exert themselves at least as energetically as those who frequently experience actual privation.
Marx’s doctrine is based on a conception of human nature that unfortunately is over kind. Only exceptional man works according to his ability without the prospect of a tangible reward, that is to say, of a reward beyond the inner satisfaction of work well done. The technocracy, at least as realistic as communism or capitalism, would also offer a tangible reward in order to induce the maximum of skill and care.
But a technocracy would not adapt the current system of reward since variable consumptive power inevitably leads to all the old corruptions, ostentations, and gluttonies. The technocracy would go farther back to the fundamental incentive of human effort and reward valuable service with prestige, the open acknowledgement of a man’s prowess by his fellows. As a matter of fact it is only recently that monetary inducements have superseded the time-worn glory, honor, respect, with which older civilizations spurred on their members. Though prestige cannot be hoarded, it is much dearer to the human heart than any symbol of spending power. Money is, of course, more easily measured but even money owes most of its strength to its symbolic meaning.
This long excursion was an attempt to discover whether vice would be a convenient outlet for the surplus of energy released by the technological system of production and distribution. Vice, it seems, would not do. In fact vice has never functioned even adequately as an energy outlet.
Suetonius has given us a detailed account of how some score of Roman emperors, under ideal conditions, attempted to utilize their spare time in the pursuit of what is called vice. Not one of them succeeded in becoming passably contented. The several who undertook creative tasks did much better for themselves. Vice enjoys an unwarranted prestige, just as gin does in the dryer parts of America, because of the difficulties put in the way of its indulgence. Destroy the difficulties and much so-called vice would disappear.
The consideration of vice has brought out how fundamental is the change which the control of productive processes and the non-control of living mores would induce (Italics in the original, ed.).
During the late centuries experimentation in the technique of producing goods has been encouraged. A revolution in the technique of production, making possible a social organization in which every man for little effort might have everything he needed, has resulted. The job is done, not finished, but well enough done to permit of the consolidation and utilization of the knowledge gained.
On the other hand, society since the beginning has discouraged by means of church, school, and statutory restrictions all experimentation in the domain of spiritual living. The consequence has been a stultification of the intellect, a frustration of the emotions, and a damming up of nervous energy which is bringing many people to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
A technocracy would attempt to set free that great surplus of vital energy now burning itself out, uselessly, in the business game, and redirect it into unexplored channels. […]
Still the novelists, the highbrow novelists, not those clever craftsmen who provide vicarious emotions for fear-ridden maidens of both sexes, do much of the critical thinking of our time. Their messages have but a limited effect, the forces of society being arrayed against social iconoclasm.
Men still try to live by the rules of nomadic desert tribes. The threats and taboos held over the heads of those simple desert peoples had some justification when lightning, the plague, the flood, and the drought were felt to be the weapons of an avenging deity. Now that we have harnessed the lightning, curbed the plague, and circumvented the flood, it would seem reasonable to survey once more the taboos which were originally intended to propitiate a terrible and temperamental deity.
At any rate man with all his material achievements seems no happier, if as happy, today than at the beginning of history. His miseries have other causes, that is all. Research work, directed toward discovering the causes of his psychic maladjustments, may prove more difficult than devising a machine to pick cotton; and successful achievement in this field will surely be harder to measure; still it is doubtful if the goal, a life that satisfies both our instincts and our aspirations, looks as unattainable to us as the goal of our ancestors, the conquest of nature, looked to them.”
This passage reminded me of two other authors, one of them antecedent to Loeb’s utopia, Aldous Huxley in what was probably his first published essay making reference to both psychology and “our ancestors”:
“The invention and development of the modern science of psychology” – Huxley wrote in 1919 – “has made us regard as important and interesting a multitude of small odds and ends of thought, emotion and sensation which seemed to our ancestors almost negligible. They did not insist on the phenomena because they were interested primarily in what they regarded as the reality behind them.”
The mention of “research work, directed toward discovering the causes of his psychic maladjustments” reminded me instead of a speech that thirty years later, during the sixties, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave in slightly different versions each time, including at the convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. in 1967.
Here are a few excerpts from one of those speeches (UCLA, 1965; bold added for emphasis; frequently used sentences, absent from this particular delivery of this speech, in square brackets):
“This problem will not be solved until we develop a sort of divine discontent all over America.
There are certain technical words within every academic discipline which soon become stereotypes and cliches. Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature.
Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.”
[This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology.]
Certainly, [we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities,] we all want to live the well‐adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.
But I must honestly say to you in this afternoon, my friends, there are some things within our world and our nation which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I call upon all people of good‐will to be maladjusted until the good societies realize.
I must honestly say that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never intend to become adjusted to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. But I recognize that there are between forty and fifty million of our brothers and sisters in this country who are perishing all along the island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. And I will never adjust myself to these conditions, I will never be satisfied until of God’s children will have the basic necessities of life.
I must honestly say, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to the self‐defeating effects of physical violence. We are in a day when Sputniks and Explorers are dashing throughout the space and guided ballistic missiles are causing highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or non-existence.”
(12 – twelfth of a series, previous articles here, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11)
[In the photo the cover of Vol. 5 No. 3, October 1923 of Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts – published in New York – established and directed by Harold Loeb.
According to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum website it was “a modernist magazine founded by Harold Loeb and Alfred Kreymborg and published from November 1921 to January 1924. Loeb was the son of two powerful New York families—the Guggenheims on his mother’s side (cousin to Peggy Guggenheim) and the Loebs on his father’s side. Loeb came from a rather affluent background, which allowed him to produce a magazine that was instrumental in introducing Americans to European avant-garde.”
Associate Editor of Broom at the time when the magazine was established in Rome in 1921 – main office was in Trinita’ dei Monti, 18 – was Giuseppe Prezzolini. “Initially, the magazine was printed in Europe, first in Rome and then in Berlin, with the intention of bringing new, avant-garde art back to the U.S.”]
Last Updated on April 4, 2021 by Federico Soldani
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here is the thirteenth article in this series: