I’ve said that society was generally optimistic about progress until the early 20th century, and lost that confidence in the World Wars. By the late 20th century, from about the 1970s on, a deep skepticism and distrust of progress had come to prominence. But what happened in between?

I have a new theory about what characterized the attitude toward progress (in the US, at least) from about the 1930s through the ‘60s. It’s just a hypothesis at this stage, but it goes like this:

The 19th century was dominated by a belief in the power of human reason and its ability to advance science and technology for the betterment of life. But after World War I and the Great Depression, it got harder to believe in the rationality of humanity or in the predictability and controllability of the world.

The generation that went through these shocks, however, was not ready to give up on the idea of progress. They still wanted progress and still believed that reason could achieve it—but they worried that the masses could not be trusted to be rational, and that progress could not be left to the chaos of democracy and free markets. Instead, progress was to be achieved by a technical elite that would exercise top-down control.

The purest form of this, perhaps, found expression in early Communism, which valorized industrial production but sought to achieve it by subordinating the individual to totalitarian rule. The US was too individualistic for that—but it evolved its own flavor of the idea that I’m just starting to understand. Call it “technocracy.”

Historical evidence

Here are some snippets from my research that indicate this theme.

Walter Lippmann and the “democratic realists”

Lippmann wrote a number of books around the 1920s arguing that democracy doesn’t work, because it relies on an informed public, which he saw as impossible. Quoting from “Can Democracy Survive in the Post-Factual Age?” by Carl Bybee:

For Lippmann, given the inevitable tendency of individuals to distort what they see, coupled with the basic irrationality of humankind, the only hope for democratic government was to reinvent it. This new, more “realistic” democracy would be tempered and guided by a form of knowledge which, Lippmann believed, rose above subjectivity and politics: science.

Lippmann was part of a school of “democratic realists”, says Bybee:

The major themes sounded by Lippmann were shared by the democratic realists. First and foremost was the belief in the fundamental irrationality of men and women. The second related theme was that the minimization of participation of the masses in public life was consequently a necessary goal. Third, to preserve democracy it must be redefined as rule for the people but not by the people. Rule would be by informed and responsible “men of action.”

H. G. Wells and other sci-fi authors

J. Storrs Hall, in Where Is My Flying Car?, describes Wells’s 1935 film Things to Come as portraying a “technological Utopia,” a “concept of a completely designed society”, run by a “technological elite that forms the enlightened scientific world government.” Elsewhere Hall points out that Wells “firmly embraced world government, public ownership of capital, and centralized planning on a grand scale,” and compared this to “Isaac Asimov’s computer-controlled economy and wise robotic overlords” and “E. E. Smith’s galactic government of wise, incorruptible Lensmen.”

Technocracy, Inc.

Technocracy was actually the name of a specific political/economic movement from this era, and the name of an organization that promoted it. Here’s how Charles Mann describes it in The Wizard and the Prophet:

Marion King Hubbert, an idealist through and through, believed in the power of Science to guide the human enterprise. A geophysicist at Columbia University in the early 1930s, he was one of the half-dozen co-founders of Technocracy Incorporated, a crusading effort to establish a government of all-knowing, hyper-logical engineers and scientists…. Technocracy adherents believed that the world was controlled by flows of energy and mineral resources, and that society should be based on this understanding. Rather than allowing economies to dance to the senseless, febrile beat of supply and demand, Technocrats wanted to organize them on the basis of a quantity controlled by the eternal laws of physics: energy.

Politically unbiased experts in red-and-gray Technocracy uniforms would assay each nation’s yearly energy output, then divide it fairly among the citizenry, each person receiving an allocation of so many joules or kilowatt-hours per month. If people wanted to buy, say, shirts, they would look up the price on a table of energy equivalents calculated by objective Technocratic savants. The leader of the system, the Great Engineer, would oversee a new nation, the North American Technate, a merger of North America, Central America, Greenland, and the northern bits of South America. No more would self-interested businesspeople and short-sighted politicians run rampant; the North American Technate would be smooth, efficient, and rational.

The twentieth century seen through this lens

No matter exactly how influential these specific ideas were, they point to something in the zeitgeist. When you adopt the technocracy lens, it seems to fit a lot of the major developments of the mid-20th century:

  • The New Deal was top-down engineering of the economy, after the chaos of the Roaring Twenties and the subsequent market crash
  • Mobilization for WW2 was managed top-down—both manufacturing and research
  • The interstate highway system and the Apollo program were massive federal projects to achieve economic and scientific goals

And, possibly but less obviously a fit:

  • Under the Truman Doctrine of “containment” of Communism, the US became the world’s policeman, definitively reversing a long tradition of attempting to avoid foreign entanglements

Why didn’t technocracy last?

Technocracy made sense to the pre-war generation, who grew up when times were still optimistic. (FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower were all born in the 19th century and came of age before WW1.) But the generation raised after the wars—in an atmosphere of fear and soul-searching—felt differently. They weren’t simply looking for a different means to achieve the same end of progress—they rejected the idea of progress, seeing technology and industry as doing more harm than good. They didn’t trust the elites (or “anyone over 30”), and they bristled at authority and at restrictions on personal freedom.

In 1969, as technocracy reached its apotheosis with the Moon landing, the new generation was partying at Woodstock.

The crisis of technocracy

In the early 1970s, a perfect storm of events conspired to discredit the technocratic idea, including Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil shocks. By 1973 it was clear that our leaders were unfit to govern, in terms of either competence or ethics: they could not handle affairs at home or abroad, neither the economy nor foreign policy, and they were plagued by scandal.

From the 1970s on, the conversation changed. The belief in progress was not totally dead. But the idea that it could be achieved centrally by the elites held much less sway, and there was a major new element of distrust and skepticism at the very idea of progress—an element that has not gone away, and indeed by today has gone mainstream.

Again, all of this is still a hypothesis, and there are many missing pieces. What exactly was the philosophy of the new generation? How did Communism make the transition from the technocratic old Left to the anti-industrial, anti-elitist New Left? And how exactly should we characterize the period since the 1970s—which contains major elements of anti-technology, anti-growth, and anti-consumption sentiment, but which also saw the continued rise of Silicon Valley, the Reagan era, etc.?


13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:31 PM
New Comment

As a liberal growing up in the 90s in a primarily conservative rural community, my view of how liberalism has shifted in my lifetime: in the 90s and early 00s, I identified liberalism as the free-thought side, pro-variety, pro-weirdness. One might say that the implicit argument would be: change does not mean progress, but progress has to be change, so it makes sense for the side of progress to open itself up to all the weird ideas, to look for the good ones.

Now it seems like the conservatives have become the free-thought coalition (pro-free-speech, anti-political-correctness, Q, flat-earth, and so on), and the liberal coalition has become authoritarian, pro-science, pro media control, etc.

(I'm not very politically informed, so these impressions could be quite mistaken.)

In other words, I think the connotation of "progress" has flipped to a more authoritarian and technocratic one in the past thirty years. (This is still consistent with your claim that there's increasing skepticism about progress and technocracy, however.)

I tend to agree with that, except for "pro-science". Only the science that doesn't contradict the current narrative is allowed.

True, agreed. What I wanted to point to was the academic gatekeeping (legitimacy-manufacturing) machinery. In essence, 'science' as a sociological phenomenon (a group of people with a set of norms) rather than an epistemic practice.

It's not that simple. One of the charges of Joe Rogan was that he invited scientists who have their own opinion on his podcast because the opinion derivates from institutional opinions.

When the media culturally appropriate the term scientific consensus few people in the left spoke up to defend the old sense of the term.

Facebook started even going against scientific journals for misinformation.

This is pretty tough to evaluate, but I would guess that media, and the interests of the elite generally, has a longstanding influence on the 'scientific consensus' as-viewed-from-a-sociological-standpoint (IE the average opinion of scientists). 

Today we see Twitter going against scientific journals. In the 1900s, would we see conservative-leaning media going against scientific journals?

OK, maybe that's not a fair comparison. The situation is complicated. Conservatives were 'never' (approximately?) allied with science, preferring religion as an authority-gatekeeper. 

So one error I was making was conflating all authority structures with each other. It might possibly be that preference-for-authority-structures correlates (so that we can coherently point to "authoritarians"), but there are certainly some specific pairs of authority structures where adherence anticorrelates.

We had quite a while during which there was a consensus among climate scientists for global warming but a lot of doubt in the media about global warming. Elite opinion of course influences the scientific consensus but actual scientists are still partly bound by the empiric reality in their field and not just by whatever narrative elites want to push.  

Most of the time the media just ignores scientific journals when they say things they don't like. The thing that distinguishes social media companies is that they have users who do engage with scientific journals and at the same time want to control the information flow. 

A lot of good scientists are heterodox thinkers because heterodox thinking is useful to make breakthroughs in science. 

The modern left likes bureaucratic authorities in which individual people inside the system have relatively little power to turn their own opinion into policy. 

Politically unbiased experts in red-and-gray Technocracy uniforms would assay each nation’s yearly energy output, then divide it fairly among the citizenry, each person receiving an allocation of so many joules or kilowatt-hours per month. If people wanted to buy, say, shirts, they would look up the price on a table of energy equivalents calculated by objective Technocratic savants.

My high school history/economics teacher actually assigned me to study the Technocracy Movement, I suspect because he wanted me to be more skeptical of mainstream economics, or at least the more technocratic parts, like central banking, monetary/fiscal/industrial policies, etc. (He favored Austrian economics himself.) Now, this history is more salient to me as yet another cautionary tale about the general unreliability of human reasoning.

But the idea that it could be achieved centrally by the elites held much less sway, and there was a major new element of distrust and skepticism at the very idea of progress—an element that has not gone away, and indeed by today has gone mainstream.

Elites are probably better at reasoning than the average person, but still not good enough to foresee and prevent the negative side effects of progress (or cultural and technological change, to use a more neutral phrase). Given this, "distrust and skepticism at the very idea of progress" seem totally understandable. It's hard for me to see how this can change in a sustainable way, unless we get better at reasoning itself. (I say "sustainable" because people might temporarily become bullish about progress again, by forgetting that we're not very good at reasoning about social problems.)

It seems to me the technocratic rule is but another manifestation the idea already expressed by Plato in his Republic, a polis governed by philosophers and where rationality rules. The common thread being the perception of intellectual superiority by a certain group, seen to justify their governing position, coupled with the idea that the operations of a society can be rationally understood and managed.

Good connection!

Part of what it meant to be anti-elitist in the 1970s was to say that people like Robert Moses and J. Edgar Hoover who had massive power as unelected bureaucrats that were partly kept in power by blackmailing politicians shouldn't exist. 

We might have to look more at how technocratic power actually is wielded. 

Oh yeah, Moses is a good example (from everything I've heard about him, at least)

found expression in early Communism

In my mind, "early Communism" is like 1844-1889 (Marxism, the First International, etc.), and I don't think you get the technocratic impulse until Lenin; but this is still before WWI, and so can't really be a reaction to WWI.

That said, it makes some sense for the Communists to 'get disappointed' before others, and so turn towards technocracy before others.

Ah, I meant the early implementation of Communism, like 1920s and '30s. And yeah, I don't think Communism was a reaction to WW1 (clearly), but I think the US adoption of technocracy was, in part.