by John Thornhill

February 19 2018
from FT Website


Spanish version





Technocracy in action:

Elon Musk, grandson of one of the

movement's leader in Canada, Joshua Haldeman

© Reuters



There are lessons

to be learnt today

from the 'revolt of the engineers'

in the 1930s...


One of history's recurring themes is that technology sometimes outruns society, leaving politicians gasping to catch up with the consequences.


So it was with the impact of,

  • the printing press

  • the steam engine

  • the computer

Arguably, so it is again today with gene editing, social media and artificial intelligence.

While technologists often rail that politicians just do not "get" technology, politicians counter that technologists all too rarely grasp politics.

One fascinating example of both sides of the debate was the history of the technocracy movement that briefly flourished in North America in the 1930s. The "revolt of the engineers", as it was called, holds some interesting lessons for today.

It was understandable that radical movements emerged in the US in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, just as communism and fascism proliferated in Europe.


The technocracy movement argued that the best way out of the crisis was to reject the messiness of the market and old-fashioned politics and adopt a "modern scientific point of view".

In their Introduction to Technocracy, published in 1933, the movement's leaders declared that the "riff-raff" of outdated social institutions was blocking progress and politicians should be swept aside, just as alchemists and astrologers had previously given way to science.


Traditional economics, obsessed with arbitrary pricing mechanisms rather than rational production, was nothing more than the "pathology of debt".

"In contrast to the devious ways of politics, the fumbling methods of finance and business... we have the methods of science and technology," the movement's manifesto declared.


"Modern common sense is now calling upon physical science and technology to extend the frontiers of their domain."

The historian William E. Akin identified three wellsprings for budding technocrats:

  • a growing fashion for centralized planning among progressive reformers

  • the popular mythology of the engineer as the savior of American society

  • the scientific management theories of Frederick W. Taylor

Abolishing the price mechanism and maximizing 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.

North of the border, the technocracy movement was taken so seriously that it was banned by the Canadian authorities, fearing it planned to overthrow the government.


The party's disillusioned leader, the adventurer Joshua Haldeman, later abandoned Canada and moved to South Africa.

At the heart of the movement was the belief that human action was measurable and, ultimately, predictable.

"Technocracy makes one basic postulate: that the phenomena involved in the functional operation of a social mechanism are metrical," its manifesto claimed.

Flashes of that mentality appear to have resurfaced on the West Coast of the US today in what the writer Evgeny Morozov has called technological "solutionism".


According to this worldview, technology has the answer to almost every problem and humans can best be analyzed as collections of data points.

The politicians' response is that human behavior is not computable. Both individually and collectively we act in refreshingly irrational ways.


It is hard to improve on Immanuel Kant's famous dictum:

"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

One small, but intriguing, footnote in the history of the technocracy movement, though, may have particular resonance today. One of Haldeman's grandsons is Elon Musk, the space entrepreneur who aims to turn us into an interplanetary species.

Maybe technocracy will finally have its day, appropriately enough, on Mars...