Category Archives: top-down

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.


Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?

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