The Roots of Progress

From technocracy to the counterculture

Part 2 of my review of American Genesis

Quote quiz: who said this?

American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles; which continues on a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable.

Teddy Roosevelt? Henry Ford? No—it was Joseph Stalin, writing on “The Foundations of Leninism” in Pravda, in April 1924.

That was one of many fascinating facts I learned from American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, by Thomas Hughes. The book is not only about the century of technological enthusiasm, but also about how that enthusiasm (in my opinion) went wrong, and how it came to an end.

I’m reviewing this book in three parts, although each part should stand alone. This is part 2. Part 1, covering roughly the first half of the book, was on the creation of large technological systems of production and distribution: Ford’s manufacturing operation, the Bell telephone network, the electric grid. This part, covering most of the second half of the book, is about the reaction to and interpretation of these systems. (All quotes in what follows are from the book unless otherwise attributed.)

“The system must be first”

With large technological systems came a challenge of order and control: load management in electrical power generation, circuit switching in telephone networks, inventory management in supply chains.

Factories, too, required order and control. I’ve written earlier about how Carnegie felt the lack of control over steel production, saying “I felt as if we were moles burrowing in the dark.” There was a similar problem in machine shops and engineering works. Shop foremen were responsible for most of the production process; they ordered materials and delegated jobs to machinists:

The foremen had overall supervision, but there was little scheduling and, therefore, little planned coordination of the various jobs. Components sometimes reached the assembly point, or erecting shop, haphazardly. Because of lack of planning, scheduling, and close monitoring of the progress of work, raw materials were often not on hand.

The man who was most obsessed with improving factory efficiency, whose name became almost synonymous with it, was Frederick W. Taylor:

Taylor found the disorder and lack of control unbearably inefficient and declared war on traditional methods responsible for these. His reform specified that an engineering division take away from the foremen overall responsibility for the preparation of drawings, the specification of components, and the ordering of raw materials. Upwardly mobile young graduates from the rising engineering schools were soon displacing their “fathers,” the foremen.

This new “planning department” coordinated the work and optimized the flow of materials, components, and jobs. They gave detailed instructions to the machinists and other workers, and they kept careful records of work performed and time and materials used:

By an elaborate set of instruction cards and reports, the planning department had an overall picture of the flow of parts throughout the shops, a flow that prevented the congestion of the work at particular machines and the idleness of other machines and workmen. The reports of worker time and materials consumed greatly facilitated cost accounting.

Taylor believed that laborers could work harder and produce more—even that they were deliberately slacking off, actively hiding from management how much productivity was possible (a practice called “soldiering”). He addressed this with what became known as time-and-motion studies:

In his search for the one best way of working, of deciding how and how fast a lathe operator should work, he used a method that he considered scientific. He believed values and opinions of neither workers nor managers influenced his objective, scientific approach. Beginning in 1882, first he, then an assistant began using a stopwatch to do time studies of workers’ motions. Timing was not a new practice, but Taylor did not simply time the way the men worked: he broke down complex sequences of motions into what he believed to be the elementary ones and then timed these as performed by workers whom he considered efficient in their movements. Having done this analysis, he synthesized the efficiently executed component motions into a new set of complex sequences that he insisted must become the norm. … The result was a detailed set of instructions for the worker and a determination of time required for the work to be efficiently performed. This determined the piecework rate; bonuses were to be paid for faster work, penalties for slower.

Taylor’s 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management was widely read and his methods were enthusiastically embraced by some managers. But he received strong opposition from labor.

The factory system, which had been on the rise ever since the first Industrial Revolution, had already deprived workers of the chance to be master craftsmen: running their own shop, setting their own hours, directing their own work, becoming experts in all parts of the process. Instead, they had to commute to factories and labor under the direction of a foreman. In the factory, they performed only one minor, specialized task. Now the detailed instructions from the planning departments and the time-and-motion studies “denied the individual worker the freedom to use his body and his tools as he chose.”

Mechanization and automation had turned workers into mere cogs in a great machine. Now Taylor was attempting to optimize them, as one might optimize parts of a machine. He imagined a system in which “the mechanical and human parts were virtually indistinguishable,” and he and his followers “unfeelingly compared an inefficient worker to a poorly designed machine member.” In Principles of Scientific Management he wrote: “In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”

Workers in many factories protested. Some claimed that Taylor and his staff didn’t understand their work; one group sent a petition against the “humiliating” time-and-motion studies, calling them “un-American,” and then staged a walkout. During one particularly bitter conflict, “friends begged Taylor to stop walking home alone late at night through deserted streets.” Samuel Gompers, the famous labor leader, lambasted scientific management:

So, there you are, wage-workers in general, mere machines—considered industrially, of course. Hence, why should you not be standardized and your motion-power brought up to the highest possible perfection in all respects, including speeds? Not only your length, breadth, and thickness as a machine, but your grade of hardness, malleability, tractability, and general serviceability, can be ascertained, registered, and then employed as desirable. Science would thus get the most out of you before you are sent to the junkpile.

Despite the opposition from labor, “scientific management” was extremely popular in the early 20th century, and much more broadly than in the factory. There was a high degree of confidence in elites and their ability to direct the world. Taylor himself wrote:

… the same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities; to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our government departments.

The Progressive party that Teddy Roosevelt ran under in 1912

… was not content that experts bring order, control, system, and efficiency only to resources and work; they wanted social scientists—also “scientific experts—to direct their reforming zeal to city, state, and federal government.” Those who applied the technological spirit to such diverse realms of society came to be known to the public as “efficiency experts.”

Even the conservationist movement of the time—in stark contrast to the countercultural environmentalist movement some fifty years later (see below)—was based on similar themes:

Like scientific management, it advocated that decisions about conservation be made scientifically by experts. Like Taylor, the progressive conservationists did not countenance as inevitable conflict of interests among ranchers, farmers, lumbermen, utilities, manufacturers, and others. To the contrary, they believed that such conflict was regressive, that it must be displaced by a scientific approach expected to bring harmonious and rational compromises in the general interest. This approach expressed a technological spirit spread by engineers, professional managers, and appliers of science, a belief that there was one best way. College-educated foresters, hydraulic engineers, agronomists should be, the progressives argued, the decision makers about resources; professional managers about the workplace.

This, then, is “scientific management”: there is “one best way”; this way can be found, and should be directed, by educated elites; and therefore “the system must be first.”

As we’ll see, these ideas turned out to have broad appeal.

Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany

In the 1920s, after WW1 but before the Depression, America was clearly ascendant in the world. It had produced the telephone, the light bulb, and the Model T; it had helped win the war; and it was becoming a dominant economy. It “had never enjoyed greater respect, or been more envied.” Europeans “wanted to know how the United States had become the most productive enterprise in the history of the world”—especially in the new Soviet and Weimar republics.

Both Russia and Germany looked to America as a model to copy. This was surprising to me, given that soon after, the US would be fighting WW2 against Germany, and then a Cold War against the USSR. But the US clearly possessed economic and military power, and other nations wanted that for themselves. The quote at top about “American efficiency” was from Stalin writing about the “special Leninist work style.” In other words, Stalin had made American efficiency into cardinal Leninist doctrine.

But (and I am editorializing now) the Russians and the Germans copied the wrong things. They didn’t copy capitalism, economic freedom, limited government, or individualism. They copied factories, power plants, and “scientific management.” “While middle-class Americans believed that the world was waiting to hear about their political system and their free enterprise, Germans and Russians were asking about Taylorism and Fordism.”

Lenin was a big fan and careful student of Taylor, saying in a speech in 1918:

The Taylor system… like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the subtle brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of its greatest scientific achievements in the field of analyzing mechanical motions during work. … The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism will be determined precisely by our success in combining the Soviet government and the Soviet organization of administration with modern achievements of capitalism. We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our purposes.

The Soviets took Taylorism “from the limited field of factory organization to the grand scale of the national economy. The Communist Party, wanting to persuade the entire nation that scientific management accorded fully with scientific Marxism, translated and published the Taylor book and other American books, articles, and countless commentaries on scientific management.”

Individualistic American workers had revolted against being treated as parts of a machine, but Russians embraced this notion:

Alexei Gastev, the Soviet “worker poet,” the “Ovid of engineers, miners, and metal workers,” and a trade-union leader, gave American Taylorism an exotic Soviet flavor. Written in Siberian exile and prison before 1914, his poetry fired the imagination of a generation of Soviet youth after the November Revolution. Shrill factory whistles, whirring machine tools, and the glowing eruptions of blast furnaces were the images in his poetry. He saw the industrial workers with “nerves of steel” and “muscles like iron rails” as extensions of the machines they tended. Giving a poetic cast to Taylorite thoughts, he lauded the fusion of man and machine in his poem “We Grow Out of Iron”: “I grow iron arms and shoulders—I coalesce with the iron form.” He accepted machines as controllers of men. … Following Taylor, he saw work becoming standardized and most workers as machine tenders. Gastev called the relationship of groups of workers with groups of machines a “mechanized collectivism.” “Many find it repugnant that we want to deal with human beings as with a screw, a nut, a machine. But we must undertake this as fearlessly as we accept the growth of trees and the expansion of the railway network.”

Ford, too, was popular in Russia. His 1922 biography, My Life and Work, had had four printings in the Soviet Union by 1925. “He was read with a zeal usually reserved for the study of Lenin. … Peasants who had never heard of Stalin knew about the man who manufactured the ‘iron horse.’ … The peasants celebrated Fordson days and Fordson festivals in their villages.” Fordson was the name of the Ford tractor, over 10,000 of which were delivered to Russia in the 1920s. (It eventually turned out, however, that the tractors did not perform well in Russian soils, were difficult to repair with no Ford service stations nearby, and ran on gasoline, “a fuel in short supply in the Soviet Union.”)

Germans were also enthralled by American industry. Franz Westermann, a German engineer, “felt compelled to make the pilgrimage” to America and write a book about it:

He believed it his responsibility to impress on his countrymen an understanding of the “marvelous” economic life, the perfected factory system, and the pervasive efficiency and productiveness of America. … America was for him … a country that filled the engineer with longing, a land of skyscrapers and automobiles, “of Taylor and Ford.” … The General Motors office building, with its elevators for twenty-four persons, the body works of the Fisher Company, the giant spread of the Ford plants, as many automobiles as pedestrians, and his hotel with a thousand rooms—these filled him with awe. (A half-century later Americans find it difficult to imagine the enchantment of technological America, or to call Detroit to mind without grim thoughts of murder statistics and a decaying city center.) With Dante-like undertones, Westermann recalled that a hellish concert of the sounds of mass manufacture alarmed him as he entered the Highland Park plant, but that the untroubled, even smiling faces of the workers emboldened him to proceed. … Highland Park was a systematically linked maze of individual factories, each concentrating on the manufacture of a single automobile part, and each populated by an anthill of diligent workers.

This sight touched him deeply:

Westermann wrote that he had always been moved, like so many of his countrymen, by the beauties and romance of nature. He had seen the shimmering surface of woodland lakes on nights of the full moon; he had felt the power of the endless ocean while standing on the tossing deck of a steamer in a storm; and he had been deeply moved by the sight of snow-covered Alpine peaks and dark mysterious valleys. Yet “the most powerful and memorable experience of my life came from the visit to the Ford plants, where the hand of man had created in a short time a gigantic production complex, which not only through its size and technical characteristics made a staggering impression, but also filled the viewer with the powerful organizing spirit of its creators.” At every turn a new machinescape, “a Bacchanal of work,” stimulated the engineer.

But, even as the Russians and Germans embraced capitalism’s factories and machines, they rejected capitalism itself.

The Soviets wanted to extract those sources of economic might from the capitalist system and to put them on a socialist foundation instead, so that they could benefit the workers and not just the capitalists. Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Bolsheviks “believed that, if such technology were developed in a Soviet context, American means of production could lead the way to the socialist future.”

Indeed, they thought socialism was not only more moral but more practical, that capitalism was holding progress back. “Unlike capitalism, the Bolsheviks argued, socialism would not be burdened by political and economic contradictions that constrained the full development of modern production technology.” An adviser to Lenin persuaded him that “electrification could not be fully developed in a capitalistic shell where competition prevailed, but only in a socialist context. Collective enterprise and cooperation, instead of competition, would facilitate a nationwide system of energy production, a national grid that would function like a single great machine.”

The Germans, for their part, felt that the problem with America was that its capitalism performed in the service of materialism. They intended to have industry serve higher, spiritual ideals:

Conservative and reactionary Germans… associated the United States with materialism and formless, soulless, chaotic liberalism and capitalism. At the same time they grudgingly acknowledged the prodigious achievement of its production technology and believed that America’s economic and political power derived from it. So they presumed that the Old World could and should take American technology, purge it of soulless, materialist capitalism, and infuse it with aesthetic, philosophical, and spiritual values to establish a superior German culture—as contrasted with America’s modern civilization. Those of such mind … aspired for a German culture with both soul and American technological muscle.

Fritz Todt, a Nazi, “articulated an ideology for German engineers”:

He drew heavily from Adolf Hitler’s views on technology and culture as expressed in Mein Kampf. Todt expressed the Nazi reaction against Weimar—and, therefore, American—modernism, which the Nazis characterized as soulless and materialistic in its single-minded commitment to the production of consumer goods. The Nazis wanted the inventors and engineers, the German equivalents of Edison and Ford, to solve problems, but they wanted these problems to be defined by the Nazi politicians, the bearers and creators of culture.

Todt saw technology as “a means for fulfilling the work ethic, satisfying heroic and creative instincts, making a German habitat, and establishing the Aryans in their rightful role as the master race.” He wrote: “Who would solve material problems by material means alone will be dominated by the material. Mastery will come through the spirit. We idealists will master dead matter through the Nazi spirit of combat and will.”

The Soviets imported American production machinery and contracted with American firms, including Ford, to design and construct large factories and hydroelectric dams. To direct the construction, they brought in American consulting engineers, who attempted to teach barefoot, illiterate Russian peasants how to operate industrial plants—peasants who “did not arrive at work on time because they had no clocks in their homes.”

Unfortunately, party members “often had a poor grasp of the systematic character of scientific management”:

They demanded speed-ups in one part of an integrated factory system while they neglected other parts of the system. As a result there were monumental reverse salients, bottlenecks, and logjams. Pressed by unrealistic production norms and threatened with the loss of meager income, workers drove newly imported machinery destructively in order to meet quotas and, after cutting corners, turned out shoddy products. Engineers and managers who made mistakes in their efforts to find new ways of planning and administering production became pathologically cautious when they found that honest mistakes might be labeled criminal sabotage by high-level functionaries not willing to take responsibility for production lapses.

At the Magnitogorsk steel complex:

Unskilled labor used imported machinery ineffectively, and unrealistic schedules bred distorted bureaucratic progress reports and corner-cutting. R. W. Stuck, an American engineer employed by McKee, reported that the Communist Party functionaries insisted that the first blast furnace start up in January 1932, even though it was only three-quarters complete. He also recalled that the Soviet authorities had the furnace’s great stacks built first because they made impressive publicity pictures. Stuck, not mindful of politics and power, found such considerations absurd. Inadequacy of transportation and materials-handling facilities, bureaucratic overhead, disastrous and unexpected shortages of supplies, and poor planning, allocating, and coordination also plagued the project. Projected plans were unfulfilled by the end of the first Five-Year Plan. The operation was too poorly coordinated to produce millions of tons of iron and steel. The project was revised and schedules were moved forward to the end of the second Five-Year Plan. In 1937 the great purge struck the project. “No group, no organization, was spared.” The methods used in the investigations “were indefensible according to most civilized standards.” Thousands were arrested, incarcerated for months, and exiled.

Things somewhat improved after that. By 1935 some steel mills were operating, and by 1938, despite fulfilling less than half of its goal, “the Soviet Union could boast that Magnitogorsk was producing more pig iron than all the plants in Czechoslovakia, Italy, or Poland.” But of course, Communism never even came close to overtaking capitalism; indeed, millions died in famines, and the USSR eventually collapsed.

Overall, my impression of this episode is that it was a colossal waste of a crucial historical moment. America held the attention, admiration, and envy of the world. It could have held up, as a model for the world to follow, not only its factories and power plants, but its system of limited government and its focus on the individual pursuit of happiness.

I doubt that this could have have stopped the advance of fascism and socialism in Europe, but perhaps that advance would have been slowed. Instead, we got the disaster of totalitarian Communism and Nazism, and the mass suffering and death that resulted.

Technocracy in the USA

Why didn’t the USA promote its system of free enterprise to the world when it had the chance? Well, for one, the US itself no longer believed in free enterprise (or at least, its elites didn’t). The US, too, was trending towards government control:

Progressive social reformers between the two world wars argued that, because the inhabited world was undergoing a second creation [the Second Industrial Revolution], the process should be planned, that it should embody benign and aesthetically satisfying values. They believed that the British Industrial Revolution had laid waste labor and the land because of the domination of heedless capitalists and narrow-minded engineers. Social planners, or social engineers, they argued in the 1920s, should play leading roles in the second industrial revolution.

… The spread of Taylorism and Fordism and sharp increases in productivity made this clear, as did the increase in centralized control of large production systems by such private corporations as Insull’s utility empire, and by investment houses, like those that financed the spread of communication and power networks. … Progressives and social reformers asked why management and control—and planning—should not be in the hands of government rather than private enterprise.

Earlier, I’ve used the term “technocracy” to describe the approach of applying “scientific management” to society or the economy as a whole. The economist Thorstein Veblen took this idea to its logical extreme:

Veblen pursued the logic of the technological spirit and system building to its rational conclusion: the entire industrial system of the country should be under the systematic control of “industrial experts, skilled technologists, who may be called ‘production engineers.’” … Veblen conceived of a national industrial system, a great productive machine, that would dwarf Ford’s and Insull’s….

The connections between Veblen’s technocracy and Communism were explicit:

Borrowing terminology from the Russian revolutionaries of 1917, Veblen called for soviets, or governing committees, of experts to take the management of the nation’s industrial system away from parasitic financiers and inexpert entrepreneurs who were wasting the resources and manpower of the country through their counterproductive greed for profits and their competitive instincts. … He numbered inventors, designers, chemists, mineralogists, soil experts, production managers, and engineers as suitable members of organizing and controlling soviets to displace the “captains of finance” who had wastefully commercialized and exploited the experts.

Veblen founded an organization to promote his idea: “Technocracy, Inc.” His essays were widely read, he was covered approvingly in Vanity Fair, and he became “required reading among intellectuals.” People started calling themselves Veblenists and forming Veblen clubs.

Technocracy in its full Veblen sense was not adopted in the US, but the general idea of control by a technical elite was widely popular—so much so that, even as the Soviets were looking to copy the American industrial model, many Americans were looking to copy the Soviet social model. Ford, who had originally criticized the Soviet Republic for seeking to “deny Nature,” including “the right to the fruits of labor,” later wrote with seeming approval that “Russia is beginning to build” and predicted that other nations would follow their lead. One young American welder, John Scott, “sadly disillusioned by the Depression in the United States,” went to Russia in the 1930s to, in his words, “lend a hand in the construction of a society which seemed to be at least one step ahead of the American.”

America didn’t adopt Communism, either, but it did adopt its own form of technocracy in the New Deal era. And much of this story centers on electric power.

Electric power became a focus for many technocrats and progressive reformers. Liberal social scientists who wanted a large role for government in deploying large-scale production systems spoke of “the value of planning and, specifically, of government planning for the development of entire regions”:

Planning with modern technology in a democracy could fulfill, they believed, the age-old vision of men and women creating an ideal environment—the New Jerusalem that would compensate for the fall from grace and the exodus from Eden. Their enthusiasm for planning often found expression in plans for regional transformation through electrification. Electric power was to be the technological agent for the transformation of regions.

They saw electricity as the basis for a Second Industrial Revolution (which it was) that would remedy the problems of the first:

During the era of coal and steam, power transmitted over long distances by rail and distributed for short distances by leather belt resulted in concentrations of industry and population at grimy mines, near grim factories, and at the nexus of rail lines. In the new era, power from electric generating plants at coal mines and at dam sites would be transmitted over long distances by high-voltage electric networks…. population and industry could be dispersed to more life- and culture-supporting environments.

Historian and social critic Lewis Mumford called this move “the fourth migration,” after the migrations that had first settled the continent, then settled the industrial districts, then concentrated population in cities. He did not want this migration “to go unplanned, as had the other three.”

One argument for social planning was environmental damage:

All of them [the “regional planners”] believed in the beneficial potential of modern technology if it were kept under the control of planning and reforming social scientists supported by enlightened civic leaders rather than under the aegis of profit-motivated capitalists and industrialists. They argued that the damage done to the physical environment during the first Industrial Revolution by the misuse of the steam engine, the railroad, and the factory in the black regions of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio could be corrected by an informed and benign use of technology, especially electrical. They blamed the growth of these congested, grim, and grimy regions on the lack of vision and effective leadership among social reformers during the first Industrial Revolution. Those social reformers had not compensated for the lack of social sensitivity on the part of mechanical engineers, most of whom had been in the service of captains of industry whose single-minded goal had been the increase of material wealth.

Further, electric power is an industry that lends itself to scale. As noted in part 1 of this review, electric regions are more efficient when they are large and can aggregate many disparate consumers to smooth out demand. To an ardent capitalist, this is an argument for large corporations, and thus for consolidation via mergers (in that era, “trusts”). But to the idealistic socialist, the scale of electricity was an argument for government control.

Bolstering this argument was the fact that a prime source of power was hydroelectric dams, and these were not merely electric projects but hydraulic projects that affected the geography and agriculture of a whole region. The most enthusiastic technocrats of the 1920s and ‘30s in the US thus advocated large federal development projects that would build infrastructure across state lines.

These progressives—like the communists, and indeed like the capitalists—were optimistic about progress. Gifford Pinchot, governor of Pennsylvania, proposed a “Giant Power plan” for his state in 1925:

The governor promised the Pennsylvania General Assembly that electricity could bring to the housewife the comforts of electric lighting, cooking, and other appliances, to the farmer the safety and convenience of electric lighting and power for milking, feed cutting, wood sawing, and countless other tasks. Pinchot went on to say that electricity could bring to every worker a higher standard of living, more leisure, and better pay. The electric-power revolution promised “to shower upon us gifts of unimaginable beauty and worth,” to form the basis “for a civilization safer, happier, freer and fuller of opportunity than any the world has ever known.”

Nebraska Senator George Norris also advocated for major public works projects in electric power:

Norris passionately believed in the promise of the electrical age. Having as a boy experienced the heavy work, the sweaty summers, and the freezing winters of a simple Ohio farm, he welcomed the “fascinating” possibilities of electricity “lightening the drudgery of farms and urban homes, while revolutionizing the factories.”

But the progressives thought this could only be done by government, not private interests. Pinchot spoke to his state legislature about

… the political action needed if the electrical age were to fulfill its great promise of becoming “incomparably the greatest material blessing in human history.” Legislation was needed, he believed, to thwart an “evil spider … hastening to spread his web over the whole of the United States and to control and live upon the life of our people.”

Norris felt similarly:

Persuaded, as were other progressive politicians, that the privately owned utilities, especially the large holding companies or trusts, were frustrating the dream of social transformation through electrification, he directed his resentment and cutting rhetoric against the “power trust.” Like Pinchot, Norris wrote in 1926 that, unless countermeasures were taken, “we will find ourselves in the grip of privately owned, privately managed monopoly and it will be extremely difficult to shake off the shackles that will then be fastened upon all of us.”

After WW1, there was a movement to continue government planning into peacetime, but it lost momentum in the ‘20s, when “the technological transformation of the nation was seen as largely and rightly a private enterprise.” With FDR and the New Deal, however, all of that changed.

Norris’s big campaign was “development of the Tennessee Valley through hydroelectric power, flood control, and soil conservation. … In the face of various schemes for private ownership, this Nebraskan in his sixties tirelessly and resourcefully maneuvered for twelve years through three hostile presidential administrations until the like-minded Roosevelt came to office.” He successfully blocked Henry Ford’s attempt to build a private dam at Muscle Schoals on the Tennessee River, then proposed his own legislation to have the government build it. Once FDR was in office, the legislation could go through, and eventually this became part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of the flagship programs of the New Deal.

Tennessee Virtual Archive

Visions for the TVA differed, leading to clashes and infighting among leadership. “More progressive regional planners throughout the nation… had enthusiastically called the TVA ‘a prevision of Utopia’ in which a new civilization would arise.” It fell short of Utopia, but it did build hydroelectric dams, administered agricultural services, and conserved forests in the whole valley region. “One 1934 study interpreted it as the greatest experiment in regional planning outside of Soviet Russia.”

Ironically, the TVA was so successful in generating clean hydroelectric power that it increased demand for power in the region to the point where it had to build coal-fired power plants to meet demand:

When the TVA resorted to using strip-mined coal, it became a prime target for the conservationists and environmentalists. As a conservation agency, the TVA lost its “flawless reputation.” Many of its one-time enthusiasts had their ardor dampened by headlines like “TVA Ravages the Land” and “Power Corrupts: The TVA and Coal Operations Ruin the Kentucky Hillsides.”

Top-down control of electric utilities persisted into the atomic age. After WW2, the military naturally wanted control over all nuclear reactors. When the US government was ready to permit civilian nuclear power, it began as a government monopoly. The authors of the Atomic Energy Act called it “radical,” writing that:

The Act creates a government monopoly of the sources of atomic energy and buttresses this position with a variety of broad governmental powers and prohibitions on private activity. The field of atomic energy is made an island of socialism in the midst of a free enterprise economy.

The counterculture

Towards the end of this century of technological enthusiasm, a reactionary backlash arose both against technocracy and against technology itself. Before WW2, Americans considered technology and industry as the basis of “the good life,” and only a “reflective minority lamented the rise of the grim industrial city, poison gases, and bombing raids, the monotony of the assembly line, and the unemployment caused by the replacement of workers by machines.” But after WW2, the zeitgeist began to change. Although engineers, managers and others who worked within the system continued to think of technology in a positive light, “and even spoke of progress in ways reminiscent of the nineteenth century,”

… countless others began to ask what had been lost and what new dangers had appeared as humans increasingly invented, organized, and controlled their material world. In the early 1970s a perceptive observer could write, “Contemporary society is characterized by a growing distrust of technology.”

This backlash was not a monolithic thing; there were different trends and threads of criticism. But on the whole, there was a reaction against large technological/industrial systems, and sometimes against technology and industry as such. For short, I’ll call it the counterculture.

Hughes calls out three main criticisms of modernity by the counterculture. The first is the destructive power of the military, armed with technology and backed by the productive power of industry:

The increasing awareness of the destructiveness of atom bombs and the threat that their proliferation posed for the future of civilization greatly stimulated among the public a counterreaction to technology. … The use by the U.S. military, as John McDermott put it, of capital- and managerial-intensive technological systems to lay waste Vietnam only heightened the public’s anger toward, and anxieties about, technology. McDermott wrote about a system of destruction consisting of aircraft, rockets, bombs, shells, technical specialists, pilots, bombardiers, radar operators, computer programmers, accountants, and engineers. Thoughtful Americans could no longer glibly associate technology with incandescent lamps, Model T’s, and “better things for better living.”

The second criticism was about the environment:

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) called attention to the loss of natural sounds, smells, and vistas as the man-made systems of production, with their toxic substances, displaced nature. Barry Commoner, in Science and Survival (1966) and The Closing Circle (1971), wrote of an environmental crisis caused by human beings driving to conquer nature in order to produce material wealth.

Finally, there was a criticism that is not yet fully clear to me, about threats to freedom and the spirit:

Whereas Hersey, Carson, and Commoner focused on particular disorders in the technological world, several authors in widely read books attacked the foundations of the technological society. They believed that the rational values of the technological society posed a deadly threat to individual freedom and to emotional and spiritual life.

In Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition:

Roszak wrote of “the technocracy,” an enemy for him and the like-minded young, far more formidable than emergencies like the Vietnam War, or chronic problems of racial injustice and poverty.

Charles Reich’s The Greening of America was about “a revolution of the young against the values of technology”:

He asked whether Americans could develop a new consciousness that placed humanistic values above the values of a technological culture. … “What we have,” he wrote, “is technology, organization, and administration out of control, running for their own sake. … And we have turned over to this system the control and direction of everything—the natural environment, our minds, our lives.” Reacting against what he took to be the values of a technological society, he called for a new reality that would remove the pressures of time constraints, schedules, and rational connections.

In Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man:

He argued that the systems of production in modern capitalist and socialist societies repress the spirits and constrain the freedom of individuals. Highly organized, hierarchical production systems deny workers influence in the work process. Craftspersons cannot express their creativity and skill in the things they make; the worker on the production line is as much alienated from his or her work as is a cog in a machine.

Lewis Mumford, who “shared philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘romantic reaction’ against the ‘mechanical philosophy,’” figures large in the book. Mumford was initially enthusiastic about technology. In Technics and Civilization he hoped for a “more organic technology”, writing: “We must turn society from its feverish preoccupation with money-making inventions, goods, profits, salesmanship, symbolic representations of wealth to the deliberate promotion of the more humane functions of life.”

But in the 1960s and ‘70s, “he shared with many others a widespread disillusion with technology”:

During the writing of The Pentagon of Power, he was “driven, by the wholesale miscarriages of megatechnics, to deal with the collective obsessions and compulsions that have misdirected our energies, and undermined our capacity to live full and spiritually satisfying lives.” … The immediate cause of his pessimism, the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, so stunned him that discourse became impossible for him for days afterward.

The physicists who made the bomb were themselves complicit in “a horrendous megamachine”:

He wrote, “to become the lords and possessors of nature’ was the ambition that secretly united the conquistador, the merchant adventurer and banker, the industrialist, and the scientist, radically different though their vocations and their purposes might seem.” Science was becoming increasingly irrelevant to human intentions other than those of the corporate enterprise or the military establishment. Scientists no longer simply sought order in the universe and reported what they found; rather, they selected those aspects of nature that could be organized systematically into a mechanistic world view.

Mumford wrote much about “megamachines”:

When the idea had taken form as the megamachine, it had become a technological system of interchangeable parts, inanimate and animate, centrally organized and controlled, dependent on a priestly or scientific monopoly of knowledge, and ensuring the power, glory, and material well-being of an elite. The megamachine imposed purely mechanical forms on every manifestation of life, “thereby suppressing many of the most essential characteristics of organisms, personalities and human communities.” In reducing life to quantitative, mechanical, and chemical components, human beings denied life.

In a perfect expression of fatalism and defeatism, Mumford described society using “the metaphor of an automobile, filled with passengers and without a steering wheel, rushing downhill toward an abyss.”

Jaques Ellul sounded similar themes in The Technological Society: “All-embracing technological systems had swallowed up the capitalistic and socialistic economies, and were, for Ellul, a far greater threat to our freedom of action than authoritarian politics.” He, too, had a defeatist view of technology:

Ellul suggested that we, like Esau, are selling our birthright for a mess of pottage, that the price we pay for a cornucopia of goods and services is slavery. We fail to see that, as technology solves problems, it also creates them, as in the case of automobiles, congestion, and pollution. Furthermore, we cannot choose good technology and reject bad, for these qualities are inseparably intermixed within technological systems.

He also lamented celebrations of technology:

Sputniks, he wrote, “scarcely merit enthusiastic delirium,” and “it is a matter of no real importance whether man succeeds in reaching the moon, or curing disease with antibiotics, or upping steel production. The search for truth and freedom are the higher goals….“

Hughes clarifies that “Ellul was not referring to political freedom but to freedom from the deterministic forces of technology.”

Summing up:

Instead of seeing and sentimentalizing the United States as essentially a nation of democratic politics and free-enterprise economics, the writers and philosophers of a counterculture probed the depth and extent of the mechanization and systematization of America. … They asked what problems arose from the man-made characteristics of built America, from—as Frederick W. Taylor said—no longer putting man first, but putting the system first.

Who, then, was the enemy?

Some of the activists of the ‘60s were influenced by these writers and “began to see modern technology, especially large technological systems, as the common cause of the cultural and social maladies about which they were protesting”:

Talk of efficiency, order, centralization, and systematization was common to the military and to industry. As the activists became disillusioned by the unceasing organizing, campaigning, rallying, and frustrations of political action, or were intimidated and incapacitated by the countermeasures of the police, the army, and the courts, they turned increasingly to opposing “the system.”

Not all of these activists were against technology as such. Some of them merely called for “appropriate technology”:

Indicative of enthusiasm for small-scale, appropriate technology was the popularity of The Whole Earth Catalog (1968), which identified the tools of a benign technology useful for shaping a new environment. Assuming that hordes of people would move into small, self-sustaining communities, the editors of the catalogue described utensils and small machines that were high-quality, low-cost, and nonpolluting… Langdon Winner has characterized The Whole Earth Catalog as expressing a vision of “a groovy spiritual and material culture in which one’s state of being was to be expressed in higher states of consciousness and well-selected tools.” Many practitioners of the Whole Earth Catalog’s philosophy were trying, like the Amish, to reduce their dependence on large manufacturing and utility systems.

Amory B. Lovins, an energy policy writer and representative of Friends of the Earth, wrote an influential article proposing taking a “soft path” for energy technology instead of the “hard path”:

The hard path envisaged the large utility systems’ prevailing into a limitless future. Over the next half-century they would phase out oil and gas as their primary energy source for the generation of electricity and move toward a greatly increased—“massive”—supply of electricity generated from nuclear energy and coal. The soft path urged by Lovins called for “an alternate … future” that would phase out large electrical-supply systems, displacing them with small, decentralized sources of renewable energy by using soft technologies such as wind, sun, and vegetation. Soft technologies would be easily understood, usable without esoteric skills, and “accessible rather than arcane.” Soft-energy technologies, Lovins stressed, are not “vague, mushy, speculative, or ephemeral, but rather flexible, resilient, sustainable and benign.”

In part 1 of this review we saw the efforts of Samuel Insull to build and scale the power grid; “Lovins is Samuel Insull stood on his head.”

In both Lovins and Whole Earth, we see the emphasis on technology that individuals without extensive training can understand, operate, and repair—technology without large technological systems. (Similarly, in the 1960s, the personal computer was welcomed as a way for the individual to have a tool previously available only to corporations and governments, who were the only ones who could afford to purchase and operate mainframes.)

But to resist massive systems requires massive counterforces, “analogous to those that killed off the dinosaurs.” Hughes cites the oil spills and smog alerts of the 1960s, the oil shocks of 1973, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident of 1979, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986 as episodes that contributed to the counterforce against the momentum of the century of innovation.

By the end of the ‘70s, even the elites, in official statements, were expressing concerns about the dangers of the new technological world. Sociologist Charles Perrow, who helped investigate Three Mile Island, wrote:

As our technology expands, as our wars multiply, and as we invade more and more of nature, we create systems—organizations, and the organization of organizations—that increase the risks for the operators, passengers, innocent bystanders, and for future generations. … Every year there are more such systems.

In 1982, even Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy and of the first commercial nuclear power plant, told Congress that he was “not proud” of these accomplishments and that the US was not accounting for the danger of a radiation release. He added in informal testimony:

I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That’s a necessary evil. I would sink them all.

Concluding thoughts

Previously, discussing the reaction against technology in the 20th century, I said that part of the cause was the problems of that century, which people believed were created or exacerbated by technology: war, pollution, etc. This is partly right. But there is also a clear element here of reaction against “the system,” the “megamachine.” There is some idea that these things oppress the individual and shackle the human spirit.

And to some extent, I think that was a reaction not just against large technological systems, but against the social idea of technocracy, against centralization, against authoritarianism, against top-down control by elites. So to understand the counterculture, we need to understand technocracy. The rise of one and then the other is key to understanding the 20th century, and how we got to where we are.

Even though we talk of eras coming and going, they never completely leave us. Influences from each of these past eras are still around. The countercultural environmentalist movement is still around, in the opposition to fossil fuels and in the “degrowth” movement. Technocracy is still around, in Operation Warp Speed and quantitative easing and much more. Big private capitalist industrial systems are still around: think of Google’s network of data centers or Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers. Even the age of the heroic independent inventor-entrepreneur may still be with us: think of Elon Musk.

To understand the systems and attitudes that drive or inhibit progress today, we need to understand all of these overlapping eras, their progression, and how each grew out of, or in opposition to, what came before.

Hat-tip to James Pethokoukis and his newsletter “Faster, Please!” for bringing this book to my attention.

Correction: A previous version of this essay called Amory Lovins a British physicist, which is how he is described by Hughes in the book. In fact, he is American, not British, although he studied at Oxford and lived in Britain for over a decade. It is debatable whether he is a physicist. He was working towards a physics PhD, but never completed it; still, he referred to himself in an interview as “basically an experimental physicist, or at least I used to be,” and he is sometimes referred to as a physicist by the press. In any case, both descriptors have been removed above. Thanks to Chaim Katz for the correction.

Relevant books

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970

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