In technocracy we trust

Sam Smith

The American response to the current crisis illustrates well the degree to which technocracy has replaced Christianity as our favorite religion. Most Americans only profess Christianity, but increasingly – and in a deeply fundamentalist manner – they practice technocracy, relying unquestioningly upon the systems that make it work.

Almost without exception, the reaction centers on technocratic solutions of security, warfare, propaganda, and surveillance. At every level – academic, media, and government – such issues are considered stripped of moral, philosophical, ethical, historical, or anthropological content. One need look no further than your own TV screen to observe this. The “experts” on the network news and talk shows are invariably those of technocratic skill rather than those who have demonstrated wisdom, foresight, or human understanding. They exemplify a quality that John Ruskin called “intricate bestiality.”

These experts, like so many American leaders of the day in virtually every field, are products, propagandists, and servants of technocratic systems that are not only amoral but are designed to keep out anyone and anything that might question their validity, value, or decency.

The closed nature of these systems is fostered not just by the rules of the professions. It starts at colleges and universities that purport to be citadels of free thought but which, in fact, are now mainly technical schools indoctrinating pupils into a closed logical loop not unlike that self-justify religious fundamentalists and brutal cops.

Once graduated from Yale Tech or the Georgetown School of Technology they move into fields such as law, media, and politics largely immune to any ideas or challenges alien to the closed logic of their systems.

The results have become increasingly absurd. The Hillary Clinton health plan, the mania for standardized testing, and the war against drugs are just a few examples of what can happen in a society in which honest analysis, moral considerations, and natural skepticism are not encouraged or, in many cases, even allowed. This closed loop is maintained by the servility of institutions such as the media and universities that control the rhetoric of the time and limit the range of, and participants in, discussion.

Eric Fromm called the technocrat homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” It is an apt description of American leadership today. We have now reached the point where not even NPR or the New York Times can find much time to consider how we can hope to get along with one billion Muslims absent endemic air power and extinct democracy.

Unlike your average American politician, journalist, or academic, Osama bin Laden understood this. The assaults have been pinpointed – with almost satiric precision – against the very icons of America’s supposed technological superiority. This is not only war, it is ridicule. Yet because the technocratic mind can’t escape its rigid curriculum, the only way we know how to respond is with a further demonstration of our supposed technological superiority.

We now have about a century’s experience with the technocratic fetish. One of the main intellectual spirits was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who sought to improve production through “scientific management” of workers, including time and motion studies as well as performance-based pay. Taylor not only had a huge impact on American industrialists such as Henry Ford, but he was part of the inspiration for the Harvard Business School and its case study approach. Peter Drucker ranks Taylor with Darwin and Freud as the top thinkers of modernity. Ford he dismisses as just someone who knew how to use Taylor’s principles.

Not long after this death in 1915, Taylor’s ideas found their way to Nazi Germany. The concentration camp has been described as an extreme example of Taylorism at work. Richard Rubenstein, writing in “The Cunning of History,” notes that “I.G. Farben’s decision to locate at Auschwitz was based upon the very same criteria by which contemporary multinational corporations relocate their plants in utter indifference to the social consequences of such moves.” Among those enthralled with Taylorism was Albert Speer. John Ralston Saul credits the efficiency expert’s ideas with helping Germany hold out against superior Allied forces later in the war.

But Taylor had other fans as well, including Lenin, who learned about Taylorism while in exile. He returned to Russia determined to “Taylorize Communism.” Saul writes: “The First Five Year Plan was written largely by American Taylorists and directly or indirectly they built some two-thirds of Soviet industry. The collapse of the Soviet Union was thus in many ways the collapse of Scientific Management.”

And the ironies continued: “The Russian government immediately hired a Harvard professor of economics, Dr. Jefrey Sachs, to help them out of the crisis. His methods – filled with complete abstract systems – were strangely reminiscent of Taylor’s . . . These brilliant financial and structural reforms lacked only one element: a recognition that several hundred million people live in Russia, that they must east every day. Or at least every second day.”

The same is true of one billion Muslims. Sooner or later we will have to face up to the fact that technocratic solutions to our current crisis will only make matters worse. We will then have to ask what is the right, sensible, moral, and practical thing to do – not according to the sort of closed technocratic rules that created the Final Solution but according to a warehouse of common sense and common decency that has been placed in dead storage by America’s myopic elite. And then we may be both safe and human again.

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