The march of the technocrats

John Thornhill:

The historian William E Akin identified three wellsprings for budding technocrats: a growing fashion for centralised planning among progressive reformers; the popular mythology of the engineer as the saviour of American society; and the scientific management theories of Frederick W Taylor.

Abolishing the price mechanism and maximising production had some obvious parallels with what was happening in the Soviet Union. In his brilliant dystopian novel We, the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin savaged such technocratic thinking, foreseeing a society in which people had numbers, not names, and operated like cogs in a vast industrial machine. The North American technocracy movement, though, argued fiercely against both communism and fascism and claimed to be much more humane.

In spite of the media interest, the technocracy movement never succeeded in the US, largely because its leaders were hopeless politicians. President Franklin D Roosevelt was the one to salvage capitalism through his New Deal. Perhaps the movement’s greatest failing was that it never spelt out practical solutions that ordinary voters could understand. Disappointed that pure reason had not swept all before it, the movement eventually split, with one splinter group ending up as a quasi-fascist fan club.