On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, and in came the Great Depression. Many Americans were looking for answers and new ideas as opposed to the old laissez-faire approach, and one of these ideas was technocracy.
Proponents of technocracy held the belief that politicians and businessmen ought to be replaced with scientists and engineers, the idea being that the economy could be managed scientifically. The philosophies behind technocracy had been building up for a while and had some predecessors in thought, including journalist Edward Bellamy. Bellamy wrote in his 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, of a society in the distant year of 2000 in which there were no more politicians, lawyers, businessmen, or soldiers, people worked only for 24 years of their life on a voluntary basis, and all industry was nationalized. People would be aided in their work through machinery. Many dreamed with Bellamy and formed Nationalist Clubs dedicated to working to bring about this idealized socialist future. Perhaps the true intellectual godfather of technocracy, however, was an economist influenced by Bellamy’s book: Thorstein Veblen.
Veblen was an unorthodox economist who as a critic of capitalism condemned production for profit. He is most known for coining the term “conspicuous consumption” to criticize the middle class for purchasing leisure rather than contributing more to production. However, in 1921 his compilation of papers titled The Engineers and the Price System was published, in which he proposed a “soviet of technicians”, a Bolshevik style government in which engineers would decide on pricing and production. He died in 1929, but only three years later his sort of thinking began to gain currency so to speak thanks to a man who had attended several of his lectures on the subject during the 1920s: Howard Scott.
In 1932, Walter Rautenstrauch and Howard Scott, with M. King Hubbert and Dal Hitchcock, formed the Committee on Technocracy. They adopted the yin-yang symbol to represent their group, representing production and consumption, and the organization publicized facts and statistics to emphasize how technological efficiency could produce stunning results. Among them were “On the basis of 1830 methods, six million men would have been needed to cultivate the soil for the 1929 U.S. wheat crop. With the best existent equipment 4,000 men could have planted the whole crop” and “A new machine for making light bulbs produces 442 bulbs a minute, replaces 10,000 men” (TIME). They also wanted a superstate of the North American continent with the leadership being called the “Technate”. Both men were of the left, as Rautenstrauch later in life would work for the communist-dominated Progressive Party in the 1948 election and Scott had held previous employment as a research director with the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Although both men stood for a much stronger presence of scientists and engineers in government, their backgrounds and views significantly differed on how far they wanted to go.
Rautenstrauch was a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University while Scott had portrayed himself as a “distinguished engineer”. However, upon further examination the press discovered that Scott was lacking in academic credentials with his experience being working in construction. Ironically, after he had worked as an engineer at the Muscle Shoals nitrates project during World War I, a government investigation afterwards had accused him of “gross waste, inefficiency, and shoddy workmanship” (Baker). Rautenstrauch had wanted engineers in charge of industrial and economic decisions but maintaining a democratic structure, while Scott called for what amounted to a dictatorship of scientists and engineers with police being used for enforcement. Evidence that the latter approach was on the minds of many technocrats was apparent in how their organization functioned: they wore gray double-breasted suit uniforms with yin-yang lapels, painted their cars gray, and saluted Scott in person (Finley). This bore an eerie resemblance to other totalitarian groups of the time and it had at one point up to half a million members in California. The technocracy movement of the early 1930s also tried to demonstrate that the current price system was dysfunctional and should be replaced with a system that had a currency of energy. As TIME Magazine wrote about the movement, “Technocracy presumes that all the wealth and functions of Society can be calculated in terms of energy unity—British Thermal Units, kilogramme calories, joules, ergs, footpounds, horsepower” (TIME). However, Scott never made it clear how this transition would happen. As he put it, “Technocracy proposes no solution” (TIME). An opportunity to explain technocracy fully to the public came the following year.
On January 13, 1933, Scott delivered a speech on technocracy in front of an audience of 400 at Hotel Pierre in New York City and it was broadcast live over the radio. There had been a lot of speculation on what technocracy was about, and this was a chance to articulate a clear platform for the Committee on Technocracy. He was untrained at public speaking, and he started his speech with, “We are not attempting to say, as some of our critics have said, that there is going to be chaos or there is going to be doom” (Baker). However, Scott proceeded to predict chaos and doom if technocracy was not adopted. The speech was widely regarded as a disaster as he had contradicted himself and once again not effectively outlined how technocracy would work. As Howard P. Segal (2005) notes, “Technocracy’s heyday lasted only from June 16, 1932, when the New York Times became the first influential press organ to report its activities, until January 13, 1933, when Scott, attempting to silence his critics, delivered what some critics called a confusing, and uninspiring address on a well-publicized nationwide radio hookup” (123). Scott had blown an opportunity and he and Technocracy were widely mocked. The organization split in two, with one group, the “Continental Committee on Technocracy” being under writer Harold Loeb while Scott led “Technocracy Incorporated”. It was also rather ironic that Scott was asserting that government by engineers would be best when President Hoover, who was being widely blamed for the Great Depression at the time, had himself been an engineer by trade. The public instead turned their attentions to FDR and his New Deal.
Technocracy, although it made a brief splash and Scott’s organization still exists today, it has limited influence and never has been seriously considered by either the Republican or Democratic Party. For one thing, it would put them out of a job!
Baker, K. The Engineered Society. (2000, April). American Heritage Magazine, 51(2).
Finley, K. (2015, June 5). Techies Have Been Trying to Replace Politicians for Decades. Wired.
Science: Technocrat. (1932, December 26). TIME.
Segal, H.P. (2005). Technological utopianism in American culture. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Thorstein Veblen, 1857-1929. The Library of Economics and Liberty.
Tilman, R. (1985). The Utopian Vision of Edward Bellamy and Thorstein Veblen. Journal of Economic Issues, 19(4).