Technocracy: Old Fallacies in a New Disguise
A distortion of truth can be as misleading as a downright lie. A new craze called Technocracy has swept America and is now being lapped up eagerly by all kinds of muddleheaded people in Great Britain. It is based on a distortion of the facts and leads to thoroughly unsound conclusions. The word itself means Government by technicians or engineers. If its advocates desired nothing more than to be governed by politicians who are engineers, Al Smith, former Governor of New York, has given them their answer:
“As for substituting engineers for political leaders in running the country, I cannot refrain from mentioning the fact that we have just finished an era of government by engineers in Washington, and that the people did not seem to like it.” (Daily Mail, January 6th, 1933.)
Al Smith refers, of course, to President Hoover and his Government.
Technocracy, however, has come to mean much more than that. Some ten years ago a group of American engineers and scientists working under leadership of Mr. Howard Scott co-operated with the Industrial Engineering Department of Columbia University to conduct what they called an “Energy Survey of North America.” They investigated the physical resources of the area and their development during the past century and were greatly impressed with the advance in productive capacity that has taken place, particularly during the past 25 years. Their conclusion is that “scientific discovery and modern engineering skill have now armed mankind with powers which would insure it a life of leisure and plenty if only they were properly employed.” (Times, January 5th, 1933.) They believe that a 4-day week of 4 hours a day could supply all the material wants of the population of North America.
So far the argument is in general a sound one, but it is not new. It has been a commonplace of Socialist propaganda for well over half a century, and incidentally Professor Frederick Soddy and the publishers of his book, Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (1926), claim that the technocrats have borrowed extensively from it for their theories on the above and other questions.
It is when the Technocrats come down to specific cases that they show their unscientific handling of their material, their exaggerations, and their inability to appreciate the conditions of the problem whose solution they are thrusting on the world with all the skill of publicity experts.
Productive capacity, the output achieved by a given number of hours of labour, has indeed increased, but all the available reports of the work of Mr. Scott and his collaborators go to show that they have tripped up badly through hopelessly exaggerating the extent of the increase. The Times (London, January 5th, 1933) and many other English newspapers have published explanations of technocracy written by their American correspondents, and Mr. Wayne W. Parrish, who identifies himself with the movement, contributed two articles to the New York New Outlook (November and December, 1932). All of these writers give figures worked out by the technocrats purporting to show how productivity in various trades has grown, but all of the figures contain a flaw which is fatal to the conclusions arrived at. If we quote one or two the flaw will at once be apparent. The technocrats say that a miller in Ancient Athens produced 1½ barrels of flour each day, while in a Minneapolis flour mill one man’s output is now 30,000 barrels a day. Another illustration is taken from the iron industry. Mr. Parrish says, “Even a century ago in these United States one man produced 25 tons of pig-iron each year . . . while our modern blast furnace technique has made it possible for one man to-day to produce 4,000 tons of pig-iron per annum.”
Arguing from this sort of evidence the technocrats speak glibly of each man’s output increasing “thousands of times,” and they see this increase at work with special force in recent years. The flaw is that they have left entirely out of account the vast amount of labour needed for the construction of the modern flour mills and blast furnaces and for the provision of fuel, transport, etc., to supply them with raw material and distribute their products. Without this information (and the United States Government Committee on Technological Unemployment has just reported that such information relating to separate trades is not available. See Industrial and Labour Information. I.L.O. January 2nd, 1933), the comparisons have little value and are in fact utterly misleading. Productivity does not increase at anything like the rate they claim.
Their false assumptions have led the technocrats to wildly extravagant conclusions, which their admirers in Great Britain have promptly swallowed. They talk about production having reached the stage at which it can almost entirely dispense with human labour. Parrish says:
“Man hours per unit of product and the labour cost per unit have dropped in recent years to levels approaching zero.”
They prophesy that by 1934 unemployment in the U.S.A. will have jumped from about 12 million to about 25 million (Manchester Guardian, December 27th, 1932), and that even with a recovery of trade and production most of the existing unemployed cannot be absorbed again.
Now if it were true that the past 25 years have brought technical changes causing the labour needed in production to drop to “levels approaching zero,” we would be faced with unemployment in the neighbourhood of 100 per cent. Instead of which the technocrats themselves place unemployment in U.S.A. at not more than 20 per cent. (New Outlook, November). There is, of course, a displacement of workers going on, but the extent of such displacement is small compared with the unscientific guesses of these “scientific” investigators. They give some figures themselves. The number of workers employed in American factories declined by 6 per cent, in the period 1920 to 1929, while production rose by 36 per cent., equivalent to an increase of nearly 7 per cent, per annum in the output of each worker as compared with his previous year’s output. In Great Britain, according to the Balfour Committee on Trade and Industry, the increase in output of industry between 1924 and 1930 was under 2 per cent, per worker per annum. We can now see the problem in its true proportions. The increase in productivity is not the fantastic one on which the technocrats have worked, and a decline of 6 per cent, in factory employment in nine years cannot be described as a decline to “levels approaching zero.”
Having misled themselves about increased productivity the technocrats quite easily slip into the old fallacy that capitalism cannot recover from its crises of overproduction. They may know something about engineering, but they know little about capitalism. Although new and more productive machines and methods are constantly being perfected they do not quickly revolutionise production as a whole, and they do not overwhelm the capitalist system.
Many inventions are throttled at birth by powerful interests that are opposed to their utilisation. Others are taken up, but owing to the heavy initial cost and the expense of training workers to use them or owing to the private ownership of patent rights, their adoption is very gradual. Taking the cost into account, the new method is rarely so much better than the old that it quickly sweeps the old off the field. It is more usual to see the old and the new side by side, the latter only slowly crushing the former out of existence. Petrol has not killed the steam or gas engine, nor has it driven horses off the streets and farms. In its early days electricity was expected to sweep all before it, but has progressed very slowly. It is 100 years since the principles later embodied in the dynamo were discovered, 50 years since electric lighting became a commercial proposition, and 30 years since electric power began to be developed on a large scale. Yet after all these years electricity is only now becoming the most important source of light and power. The technocrats have ignored facts like these. They have also made too little allowance for the wasteful organisation of capitalist production and distribution which destroys much of the effect of high productivity.
When they assert that capitalism cannot cope with the productivity of the machine they have overlooked capitalism’s crude but adequate method of dealing with the problem of “overproduction.” If goods cannot be sold at a profit the capitalist does not sit down and watch his workers using his machines to pile higher and higher the mountains of unsold goods. He just gives the workers the sack and closes down the factory. The weaker firms are driven out of business. So simple, yet so effective! The unemployment thus caused does not, as Mr. Scott believes, go on increasing with great rapidity till it reaches unmanageable proportions, The curtailment of production enables the accumulations of goods to be dispersed and in due course enables production to expand once more. It is true that some of the workers displaced by machinery can never return to their former occupation, even when production expands again. A proportion of them are ultimately absorbed in new productive and distributive trades, arising in part from the increased luxury of life of the wealthiest sections of the propertied class. The fact is that markets do expand, although not as much as production. Others of the displaced workers are given employment on road-making, and similar “public works” organised by the authorities for the purpose of limiting unemployment. The remainder have to be provided for by means of unemployment pay, poor relief or private charity.
Technocracy is likely to be popular for a time because its arrival is opportune. Six months ago the capitalist experts were confident that they know how to explain and cure the crisis by means of then currency theories and policies based thereon. Now the world has grown more sceptical and technocracy comes as a godsend, a bright new toy which will for another season keep attention fixed on non-essentials. It is a safe bet that within a year or two many of the excited followers of the technocrat n myth will have rushed to the other extreme and will be busy resurrecting the neo-malthusian bogie of over-population and food shortage. The neo-malthusians have been lying low for about two years but their advance guard will soon be on the march again. While the engineering experts led by Scott are preaching the dangers of high productivity, according to the Daily Herald (January 5th) the agricultural experts of the Royal Institute of International Affairs are warning us that the curtailment of production has gone too far, and that we are faced with a possible scarcity of wheat, meat and other products. (World Agriculture. Oxford University Press, 12/6.) Thus the cyclical expansions and contractions of capitalist trade and production each in turn produces its new or revived distortions of theory.
The truth lies in neither camp. Capitalism plunges into periodic crises of “overproduction” and exhibits its permanent contradictions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty not because of machines or the lack of them, or because of high or low productivity, but because the means of production and distribution, including the machines, are privately owned and controlled by the capitalist class. The remedy (vaguely glimpsed by some of the technocrats) is to make the means of life the common property of society and have goods produced solely for use instead of for sale and profit-making. The method (and this the technocrats entirely ignore) is the capture of political power by an organised Socialist majority.
One word in conclusion. It is obvious that the technocrats know nothing of the studies made by Marx. (They actually reject him as obsolete because they imagine that he advocated the continuance of the money system whereas in fact he recognised, as does every Socialist, that the money system will pass away with the passing of capitalism.) Marx’s approach to this problem was really scientific and contrasts strikingly with the haphazard methods and hampering prejudices of these American engineers.
(Socialist Standard, February 1933)