• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals

The structures which formerly guaranteed the rule of wealth, age, and family will not be destroyed (or at least not totally so). They will be firmed up and rationalized by the perpetual addition of trained (and, of course, acculturated) talent. In technologically advanced societies, equality of opportunity functions as a hierarchical principle, in opposition to the egalitarian social goals it pretends to serve. To the extent that it has already become the kind of “equality” we seek to institute in our society, it is one of the main factors contributing to the widening gap between the cultures of upper and lower class America.


Approximately a century ago the philosophy of laissez faire began its period of hegemony in American life. Its success in achieving that hegemony clearly had less to do with its merits as a summary statement of economic truth than with its role in the social struggle of the time. It helped to identify the interests of the institutions of entrepreneurial capitalism for the social classes which dominated them and profited from them. Equally, it sketched in bold strokes the outlines of a society within which the legitimate interests of all could supposedly be served only by systematic deference to the interests of entrepreneurial capitalists, their institutions, and their social allies. In short, the primary significance of laissez faire lay in its role as ideology, as the cultural or intellectual expression of the interests of a class.

Something like the same thing must be said of laissez innover. As a summary statement of the relationship between social and technological change it obscures far more than it clarifies, but that is often the function and genius of ideologues. Laissez innover is now the premier ideology of the technological impulse in American society, which is to say, of the institutions which monopolize and profit from advanced technology and of the social classes which find in the free exploitation of their technology the most likely guarantee of their power, status, and wealth.

This said, it is important to stress both the significance and limitations of what has in fact been said. Here Mesthene’s distinction between the positive opportunities and negative “externalities” inherent in technological change is pivotal; for everything else which l’ve argued follows inferentially from the actual social meaning of that distinction. As my analysis of the Vietnam bombing program suggested, those technological effects which are sought after as positive opportunities and those which are dismissed as negative externalities are decisively influenced by the fact that this distinction between positive and negative within advanced technological organizations tends to be made among the planners and managers themselves. Within these groups there are, as was pointed out, extremely powerful organizational, hierarchical, doctrinal, and other “technical” factors, which tend by design to filter out “irrational” demands from below, substituting for them the “rational” demands of technology itself. As a result, technological rationality is as socially neutral today as market rationality was a century ago.

Turning from the inner social logic of advanced technological organizations and systems to their larger social effect, we can observe a significant convergence. For both the social tendency of technology and the ideology (or rhetoric) of the laissez innover school converge to encourage a political and cultural gap between the upper and lower ends of American society. As I have pointed out, these can now be characterized as those who manage and those who are managed by advanced technological systems.

This analysis lends some weight (though perhaps no more than that) to a number of wide-ranging and unorthodox conclusions about American society today and the directions in which it is tending. It may be useful to sketch out the most important of those conclusions in the form of a set of linked hypotheses, not only to clarify what appear to be the latent tendencies of America’s advanced technological society but also to provide more useful guides to the investigation of the technological impulse than those offered by the obscurantism and abstractions of the school of laissez innover.

First, and most important, technology should be considered as an institutional system, not more and certainly not less. Mesthene’s definition of the subject is inadequate, for it obscures the systematic and decisive social changes, especially their political and cultural tendencies, that follow the widespread application of advanced technological systems. At the same time, technology is less than a social system per se, though it has many elements of a social system, viz., an elite, a group of linked institutions, an ethos, and so forth. Perhaps the best summary statement of the case resides in an analogy—with all the vagueness and precision attendant on such things: today’s technology stands in relation to today’s capitalism as, a century ago, the latter stood to the free market capitalism of the time.

The analogy suggests, accurately enough I believe, the likelihood that the institutional links and shared interests among the larger corporations, the federal government, especially its military sector, the multiversity and the foundations, will grow rather than decline. It suggests further a growing entanglement of their elites, probably in the neo-corporations of technology, such as urban development corporations and institutes for defense analysis, whose importance seems likely to increase markedly in the future.

Finally, it suggests a growing convergence in the ethos and ideology of technology’s leading classes along lines which would diminish slightly the relative importance of rhetoric about “property” and even about “national security,” while enhancing the rhetoric of laissez innover. This does not necessarily imply and sacrifice in the prerogatives of either the private sector or of the crisis managers and the military, for one can readily understand how the elite strictures of laissez innover may be applied to strengthen the position of the corporate and military establishments.6

A word about the elites: a number of writers of the laissez innover school, for example, J.K. Galbraith in his The New Industrial State, have argued that the enhanced importance of scientific and technical knowledge within advanced technological systems implies an enhanced socio-political power for the people who have such knowledge. Galbraith in particular has argued that these people, whom he calls “the educational and scientific estate,” now constitute an elite class whose interests diverge quite sharply from those of other elites. Since I have argued at length elsewhere against this view,7 let me limit myself here to only a few critical observances.

Galbraith’s concept of an “educational and scientific” elite class overlooks the peculiar relationship which the members of that supposed class have to advanced technology. Specifically, it overlooks the fact that most technical, scientific, and educational people are employed at relatively specialized tasks within very large organizations whose managing and planning levels are hardly less insulated from their influence than from the influence of the technically unskilled.

The obvious growth in status and, I think, power of such men as Ithiel de Sola Pool, Herman Kahn, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry Kissinger, Charles Hitch, and Paul Samuelson hardly represents the triumph of wisdom over power—an implication not absent from Galbraith’s analysis. An examination of the role which these men now play in our national life should emphasize that they are scientific and technical entrepreneurs whose power is largely based on their ability to mobilize organized intellectual, scientific, and technical manpower and other resources, including foundation grants and university sponsorship, in behalf of the objectives of going institutions. They are much more like managers than like intellectuals, much more like brokers than like analysts.

The same hardly applies to the thousands of E.E.’s, Ph.D.’s, M.S.’s, and so forth who make up the resources over which these mandarins preside and whose skills are so much at their disposal. But in recognizing the managerial and brokerage functions which predominate in the mandarin role we must also recognize that mandarin interests are more likely than not to converge toward the interests of other segments of the national elite. This conclusion is diametrically opposed to the one argued by Galbraith.

A second major hypothesis would argue that the most important dimension of advanced technological institutions is the social one, that is, the institutions are agencies of highly centralized and intensive social control. Technology conquers nature, as the saying goes. But to do so it must first conquer man. More precisely, it demands a very high degree of control over the training, mobility, and skills of the work force. The absence (or decline) of direct controls or of coercion should not serve to obscure from our view the reality and intensity of the social controls which are employed (such as the internalized belief in equality of opportunity, indebtedness through credit, advertising, selective service channeling, and so on).

Advanced technology has created a vast increase in occupational specialties, many of them requiring many, many years of highly specialized training. It must motivate this training. It has made ever more complex and “rational” the ways in which these occupational specialties are combined in our economic and social life. It must win passivity and obedience to this complex activity. Formerly, technical rationality had been employed only to organize the production of rather simple physical objects, for example, aerial bombs. Now technical rationality is increasingly employed to organize all of the processes necessary to the utilization of physical objects, such as bombing systems, maintenance, intelligence and supply systems. For this reason it seems a mistake to argue that we are in a “post-industrial” age, a concept favored by the laissez innover school. On the contrary, the rapid spread of technical rationality into organizational and economic life and, hence, into social life is more aptly described as a second and much more intensive phase of the industrial revolution. One might reasonably suspect that it will create analogous social problems.

Accordingly, a third major hypothesis would argue that there are very profound social antagonisms or contradictions not less sharp or fundamental than those ascribed by Marx to the development of nineteenth-century industrial society. The general form of the contradictions might be described as follows: a society characterized by the employment of advanced technology requires an ever more socially disciplined population, yet retains an ever declining capacity to enforce the required discipline.

One may readily describe four specific forms of the same general contradiction. Occupationally, the work force must be over-trained and under-utilized. Here, again, an analogy to classical industrial practice serves to shorten and simplify the explanation. I have in mind the assembly line. As a device in the organization of the work process the assembly line is valuable mainly in that it gives management a high degree of control over the pace of the work and, more to the point in the present case, it divides the work process into units so simple that the quality of the work performed is readily predictable. That is, since each operation uses only a small fraction of a worker’s skill, there is a very great likelihood that the operation will be performed in a minimally acceptable way. Alternately, if each operation taxed the worker’s skill there would be frequent errors in the operation, frequent disturbance of the work flow, and a thoroughly unpredictable quality to the end product. The assembly line also introduces standardization in work skills and thus makes for a high degree of interchangeability among the work force.

For analogous reasons the work force in advanced technological systems must be relatively over-trained or, what is the same thing, its skills relatively under-used. My impression is that this is no less true now of sociologists than of welders, of engineers than of assemblers. The contradiction emerges when we recognize that technological progress requires a continuous increase in the skill levels of its work force, skill levels which frequently embody a fairly rich scientific and technical training, while at the same time the advance of technical rationality in work organization means that those skills will be less and less fully used.

Economically, there is a parallel process at work. It is commonly observed that the work force within technologically advanced organizations is asked to work not less hard but more so. This is particularly true for those with advanced training and skills. Brzezinski’s conjecture that technical specialists undergo continuous retraining is off the mark only in that it assumes such retraining only for a managing elite. To get people to work harder requires growing incentives. Yet the prosperity which is assumed in a technologically advanced society erodes the value of economic incentives (while of course, the values of craftsmanship are “irrational”). Salary and wage increases and the goods they purchase lose their over-riding importance once necessities, creature comforts, and an ample supply of luxuries are assured. As if in confirmation of this point, Fortune has pointed out (January, 1969) that among young people one can already observe a radical weakening in the power of such incentives as money, status, and authority.

Politically, the advance of technology tends to concentrate authority within its managing groups in the ways I have described. But at the same time the increasing skill and educational levels of the population create latent capacities for self-management in the work place and in society. This aspect of the contradictions inherent in technology seems especially noteworthy in much of the current dissent within the armed forces. Of course, there has always been griping in the Army, but the fact that the griping now attaches itself to political problems—the war, the rights of servicemen, and so on—clearly speaks to the fact that GI educational levels have increased very radically.

A similar explanation casts light on the campus revolt. As Lionel Trilling has pointed out (Partisan Review, Summer, 1968), the cultural and intellectual level of today’s university students is far higher than that of their predecessors, if only because of television and the fact that a good part of traditional college work is now completed in the better high schools. The claim to greater self-management by university students is the natural outcome of this change. At the same time, however, the university has been developing the power and status of its own elites. These include the research elites whose power and status are based on consultantships, on their ability to win research grants and contracts and thus prestige for their universities, as well as the more general category of professional elite, i.e., those whose power within the university is buttressed by their prestige in the national professional associations and expressed in their control of the major academic departments. In spite of the apparent decentralization within the university organization, one must recognize that there has been a very tangible increase in the influence of these elites. Within the university (as elsewhere) power has become more centralized, that is, it has gravitated toward an identifiable collection of research and professional mandarins. It is the power of the latter over curriculum, admissions, research and consulting policy, hiring and advancement that is being challenged by student dissidence.8

It should be added here that even the “irrationality” of the student revolt is clarified by the general lines of this explanation, i.e., its common failure to formulate coherent social programs and its tendency to enter battle under extremely vague symbolic banners. As we have seen social irrationality can be explained as a normal effect of the social and organizational patterns of advanced technological systems and, if anything, is increased by the personal intelligence of the people trapped in those systems.

Finally, there is a profound social contradiction between the highly stratified society implicit in, say, Brzezinski’s meritocracy and the spread of educational opportunity. Yet each appears equally required by advanced technology.

These are brief and, I believe, barely adequate reviews of extremely complex hypotheses. But, in outline, each of these contradictions appears to bear on roughly the same group of the American population, a technological underclass. If we assume this to be the case, a fourth hypothesis would follow, namely that technology is creating the basis for new and sharp class conflict in our society. That is, technology is creating its own working and managing classes just as earlier industrialization created its working and owning classes. Perhaps this suggests a return to the kind of class-based politics which characterized the US in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, rather than the somewhat more ambiguous politics which was a feature of the second quarter of this century. I am inclined to think that this is the case, though I confess the evidence for it is as yet inadequate.

This leads to a final hypothesis, namely that laissez innover should be frankly recognized as a conservative or right-wing ideology This is an extremely complex subject for the hypothesis must confront the very difficult fact that the intellectual genesis of laissez innover is traceable much more to leftist and socialist theorizing on the wonders of technical rationality and social planning than it is to the blood politics of a De Maistre or the traditionalism of a Burke. So be it. Much more important is the fact that laissez innover is now the most powerful and influential statement of the demands and program of the technological impulse in our society, an impulse rooted in its most powerful institutions. More than any other statement, it succeeds in identifying and rationalizing the interests of the most authoritarian elites within this country, and the expansionism of their policies overseas. Truly it is no accident that the leading figures of laissez innover, the Rostows, Kahn, Huntington, Brzezinski, to name but a few, are among the most unreconstructed cold warriors in American intellectual life.

The point of this final hypothesis is not primarily to re-impress the language of European politics on the American scene. Rather it is to summarize the fact that many of the forces in American life hostile to the democratic ethos have enrolled under the banner of laissez innover. Merely to grasp this is already to take the first step toward a politics of radical reconstruction and against the malaise, irrationality, powerlessness, and official violence that characterize American life today.


The Ace Menace October 9, 1969

  1. 6

    An interesting illustration of this point is provided by the major change in national security policy brought about in the first years of the Kennedy Administration, a change in which many laissez innover writers—Walt Rostow comes immediately to mind—played a prominent intellectual and policy-making role. One of the goals of the new policy was to assign an enhanced importance to American efforts to aid in the development of the so-called underdeveloped world. The leading ideas of the policy were very much influenced by laissez innover, for the process of development in the third world nations was largely conceived of as a process of nurturing a technologically advanced sector in the host economy to the point at which it would be able to dominate, economically, socially, politically the remainder of the society. At that “take-off” point American efforts could presumably be relaxed for the further development of the country would be assured, along with its integration into an international economy dominated by the US.

    Superficially this might appear as a policy change in which the interests of the American military were sacrificed, at least partially, to those of AID and the State Department. Certainly, slogans to that effect—”less military aid; more economic aid”—seemed to indicate this. But in practice the nation-builders quickly found that the military of the third world nations were their best allies. Theory was quickly adjusted to the needs of practice.

    The military in a non-industrialized economy have an abiding interest in the development of a modern economic infrastructure, not least because such an infrastructure is essential to support the modern weaponry amply supplied by the US—a fact about social leverage not lost on our policymakers. The social cohesion even of a swollen officers corps tends to offset the general social fractionation resulting from the changes of modernization and, of course, officers tend to be stalwartly anti-communist.

    Thus, in spite of a change in rhetoric under Kennedy, the reality of the AID program very much served the interests of our own military; by strengthening the military capacity of other nations, by providing an expanding advisory role for our officers corps, and, not least important, by maintaining a growing market for American military equipment, both new and used. As an added fillip, the burst of nationbuilding activity under Kennedy also provided, as in Vietnam, a host of new overseas “commitments,” which of course necessitated a major rearmament program for our conventional (i.e., limited war) forces.

  2. 7

    Knowledge is Power,” The Nation, April 14, 1969. Galbraith’s “educational and scientific estate” seems but a variant of Keller’s strategic elites. (See above, note 4.) In fairness to Galbraith it should be pointed out that he too is concerned with the authoritarianism and anti-humanism of the technology. His “educational and scientific estate” is supposed to reintroduce democratic and humanist values into society because it, being highly educated, has these things in overabundance. On the whole this seems a dubious proposition. Democracy is vital only when it expresses some sort of social equilibrium; elite ideologies attack the legitimacy of social equilibrium and reduce democracy or democratic values thereby to some sort of elite benevolence toward the unwashed. Similarly, a humanist technology seems not likely to come from a class of humanist masters of technology. Mastership usually interferes with humanism in such cases. Humanist values become like Sunday School values; very good in themselves but not much in use during the week.

    Any discussion of a reorganization of technology to serve human needs seems, at this point, so utopian that it robs one of the conviction necessary to shape a believable vision. Perhaps in a period of greater technological stability it would be possible to conjure up an alternate vision, but now, when the rush to technological centralization is so powerful and rapid the task seems beyond us.

    My own feeling is that the fundamental point to take account of in constructing an alternate vision is the fact that technology itself and its need for a skilled and knowledgeable population has created within the population ample resources for self-management even of the most complicated activities. For further discussion of this basic contradiction, see below.

  3. 8

    The foregoing explanation is confirmed, I believe, by some salient aspects of the history of the student movement. Most of the radical student groups began and grew to prominence on elite campuses, i.e., on campuses where the contradiction between the cultural level of the students and the institutional power of the mandarins was most sharp. The New Left began at the University of Michigan and, after winning control over the SDS organization, organized first at Harvard, Swarthmore, Chicago, Berkeley, and other elite campuses. Only in the past two years has it reached out in any significant degree to non-elite campuses and in this it was very much aided by its militant stand against the war and the draft. Even today, on attitudes toward the university (as opposed to the war or racism, etc.) the most militant chapters are found in elite schools, Columbia, Chicago, Berkeley, and Harvard. The major exception to this statement is in California, especially San Francisco State, and my impression is that this has to do with the fact that the California system of higher education is, in general, at a further stage of development toward institutional hierarchy than those of most other states.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print