Prophecy is never a comfortable activity, but sometimes, as witness the Bible, it is a popular one. Today is one of those times when there is a flourishing market for predictions of doom. It is as significant that the Book-of-the-Month Club has selected Lewis Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power as that its author has written it. More so, indeed, for Mumford has been developing his message for two generations. It has varied less than the size and attention of his audiences.
Essentially it is not a new message. Through Mumford’s teacher, Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), it unites two traditions of nineteenth-century thought, one critical primarily of science, the other of society, though the confidence with which Victorian capitalism appealed to “science” to back up its conviction of superiority sometimes linked the two trends. As it happens, their fortunes have diverged. The sort of argument by which the society of private enterprise and profit was shown to create the best of all possible worlds a century ago has long ceased to carry conviction. Even the much more sophisticated apologists of the 1950s are on the defensive or have changed their minds. The inability of Western society to create or even maintain an environment—human and natural—fit for any living things, including men, has recently become so obvious that the most minor and fragmentary thinkers of the past are listened to with attention, provided they showed some insight into this characteristic of the modern world.
On the other hand, the mathematical, mechanist, and positivist approach to the sciences is as influential as ever; or, rather, it has been reinvigorated in the past generation by the remarkable theoretical and practical achievements secured by means of it. This does not apply so much to the social sciences, where mathematical methods never had comparable results to show—not even, except among economists, in economics.
In the natural sciences the theoretical opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies consists at present of little more than guerrilla sniping, though recently a much more serious practical challenge has appeared, as growing numbers of students in most developed countries have boycotted the natural sciences as a subject for study. The success of the challenge to the social orthodoxies of the nineteenth century and the failure of the challenge to its scientific ones in themselves prove neither the rightness of one nor the wrongness of the other. They do, however, complicate the problem of writers like Mumford who fight, as it were, simultaneously on both fronts. The force necessary to swim with one intellectual tide is not adequate to swim against another. Mumford has not, it seems to me, recognized this clearly enough.
His message, though not fundamentally original or complex, is elaborated in ways which are often very interesting, and contains insights which, I ought immediately to add, are convincing. Since most of what I shall say is critical, it is also worth stating plainly that, though often exasperating, his book is welcome and worth reading. The trouble is its excessive vulnerability.
Mumford has the strength and weakness of the successful prophet, which is the gift of saying what is about to become common wisdom, and what his readers already believe but cannot formulate. Who is not aware of the discrepancy between man’s virtually unlimited power to transform the material environment and our dramatic incapacity to control the material forces at our disposal? The predicament of the sorcerer’s apprentice is the starting-point of Mumford’s argument. Who has not speculated on what will happen if we do not learn to control these forces? The reader of 1970 has a wide choice of literature predicting disaster in one or many forms—demographic catastrophe, a globe made uninhabitable by pollution, a nuclear holocaust, a relapse into barbarism, and others, all unfortunately far from implausible.
Mumford’s analysis itself is by now familiar. The villain of the piece is the “myth of the machine,” creator of the “Pentagon of Power” whose sides reinforce one another: the power of scientific technology and political organization, which is the source of property and productivity, which in turn spells profit or money power, and is reinforced by publicity “through which the merely human directors of the power complex—the military, bureaucratic, and scientific elite—are inflated to more than human dimensions in order better to maintain authority.” These forces combine to create the “new mechanical world picture” which first emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fatally merging the aspiration to intellectual order, political absolutism, and the endless accumulation of material power with the hubris of the scientist. These helped to give “primacy to the machine with its repetitive motions, its depersonalized processes, its abstract quantitative goals.” They produced the dehumanized world of mass production abundance which is today breaking down.
This summary, though it reflects Mumford’s own taste for ponderous slogan, alliteration, and diagrammatic concepts, is unfair to an argument which is elaborate, often sensible, and full of insights. Nevertheless it illustrates an important point. If we think of the last paragraph as in any sense “true,” it is not because of the force of its exposition or argument, but because we recognize what is being discussed from our own experience, because the terms of discussion, or their equivalents, are familiar, and, above all, because we are already disposed to accept this experience as evidence of a fundamental crisis in society. That is, it has merely to be stated to convince. We are aware of the nuclear danger, of the vulnerability of the vast complex of technological living, of the erosion and breakdown of systems of social and private relationship at the points of maximum technological development, as in the big cities of the US. If we are the sort of people who read argumentative books and think-pieces in Western countries, we are likely to belong to the classes which take for granted the material abundance of Western society, but also to be haunted by the uncontrollable progress of Mumford’s “megatechnics” and the increasingly unmanageable tensions of the society it is creating. We no longer have to be persuaded of the imminence of the apocalypse.
The major weakness of Mumford’s book is that what is original and valid in it has first to be separated from what is merely another formulation of pop social criticism; what is convincing from what merely sounds so because of the reader’s prior convictions; what sounds plausible in Lexington, Massachusetts, or Palo Alto from what ought to sound true everywhere. Is the identity crisis “the typical psychological problem of our time” as Mumford claims? I see no evidence or likelihood of this, though it is quite probable that something which, until recently, struck foreigners as a characteristically North American preoccupation may become more widespread. Are “divided powers, tenacious traditions, embarrassing historic contradictions, confusions, compromises and obscurities” characteristic of “democratic government”? Only if we take nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, and more particularly North American, representative systems as the paradigm of democracy. Mumford believes that we may be sure “of only one fact”:
This is that although the material resources of the world have been immensely increased by our high-energy technology, the net gain has not been nearly as great as is usually reckoned, when the constant factor of wanton waste, premature obsolescence, organic deterioration through environmental pollution and depletion, and premature death by war and genocide are taken into account.
But the point is that the great majority of the world’s population are by no means sure of this, and indeed believe the opposite, on what seem to them to be good grounds. He may be right, but he is not so obviously right as he thinks.
The trouble about this sort of question begging in Mumford’s work is that it not merely weakens a good case, but strengthens the hand of those “megatechnicans” who treat their critics simply as people unable to adjust to a beneficial or at any rate inevitable progress and their behavior as an emotional reaction. There is no sense in abandoning the banner of rational argument to those whose procedures are (as Stuart Hampshire has recently reminded us* ) a caricature of rationalism. Why should people like Herman Kahn be in a position to discredit the reasoning of a writer who, at his best, shows more insight into the present and future of “megatechnical” society than a score of positivist symposia extrapolating trends?
Moreover, Mumford not only hands ammunition to his opponents, but also restricts the number of his potential supporters in two ways. Those who live in countries in which his assertions do not sound relevant will tend to dismiss his book as yet another piece of North Atlantic provincialism. (How many Indians, Indonesians, or even Russians and Chinese will be seriously worried, for the foreseeable future, by his “Strasbourg-goose syndrome: gorging or forced feeding for the sake of further fattening a system of automation that produces quantities beyond the normal requirements of consumption”?) Those whose professional occupation is science or even history will shrink from what sounds at best like intellectual campaign rhetoric and at worst like error.
Mumford’s case against modern technology and the admittedly narrow and abstract type of science on which it increasingly rests seems to be that it should never have started. Sometime during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries humanity took the wrong intellectual turning, abandoning a mixed, “organic,” and rooted technology and a mixed and organic approach to knowledge for the power-crazed rigors of Descartes and Galileo. This type of argument can avoid the simple reactionariness of the medievalist romantics only by taking a very exaggerated view of the capacities of preindustrial technology and science or, alternatively, by playing down the actual positive achievements of post-Galilean science and technology. Mumford does both.
As an abstract proposition, his argument is not implausible for technology, if we overlook the social conditions that fostered its development. for until the mid-nineteenth century industrial techniques were not usually more advanced than the know-how available in the sixteenth century. The argument is much harder to maintain for the natural sciences. As a historical statement it is nonsense. Whatever the moral and aesthetic achievements of the preindustrial world, or its undoubted superiority in building successful human communities, even in many cases under the handicap of intolerable inequality, exploitation, and oppression, it never showed any signs of being able to abolish famine, acute poverty, premature aging and death, and the stunting of the human mind and body on any large scale for any length of time.
We cannot afford to forget this, as Mumford does, nor that even today these things have been adequately achieved only for a minority of human beings. In so far as they depend on modern science, its work is not exhausted. All serious social analysis today rests on the empirical discovery that an economy of potential or actual plenty, so far from solving all human problems, may create new or intensify old ones; but at least we can now recognize and identify them better than the men of pre-industrial societies, whose idea of utopia could hardly be more advanced than the dream of material abundance—the Land of Cockaigne or the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
If any freshman student can see this today, it is because of what material technology has achieved. We can worry about unnecessary production and the dangers of having too much technology, because we no longer need be worried by primary want. We can concentrate our minds on the scores of millions killed in the international wars of our century, because we can happily forget about the comparable numbers who died from starvation and hunger diseases in equally short periods of the past—for instance, in the great chain of famines a century ago (1867-70) which stretched from India to Spain and is hardly so much as mentioned in the history books.
If we want to indulge in historical recrimination, we should point out that these benefits arose out of the triumph of an economy of unlimited accumulation, which necessarily creates its own tragic—and today perhaps fatal—contradictions and absurdities. The case against this economy is a) that the perfectly genuine advantages it brought were not the object but the by-product of the process of accumulation; b) that they were at all times bought at a high human and social cost, avoidable or not; c) that beyond a certain point it is no longer possible to believe that the process will generate greater benefits than troubles; and d) that, if only by multiplying the numbers of men and the capacity to change the material environment, it may be on the verge of creating the conditions for catastrophe, or however else we describe the complex of disagreeable future possibilities toward which the world seems to be heading.
But this is not, essentially, a case against science and technology as such, however critical we may be of both. The solutions are social, even if they simply take the form of Mumford’s utopia, the decision to abandon one kind of approach to science and technology for another. The trouble with Mumford is that, while admitting this en passant, he seems to regard the situation as due primarily to the intellectual deficiencies of the orthodox natural sciences, the hubris of the scientists, the even blinder conceit of the technologists and their vulgarizers. But this is to confuse two different arguments, and in doing so to obscure the legitimate critique of the effects of science/technology considered independently of other social variables.
There is not much that even the most socially responsible scientists can do as individuals, or even as a group, about the social consequences of their activities, and it is as pointless to blame them for these as it was to blame commercial farmers as individuals or group for making the Great Slump worse by continuing to unload crops on a glutted market. The decision to control the size and direction or the technological use of their resources is social and political, like that to support farm prices and control agricultural output.
Short of deciding to stop being scientists—which admittedly a growing number of the young seem to be doing in most developed countries—the power of scientists as such is limited. They might and ought to stop particular activities by a strike, e.g., a refusal to participate in ABM and biological warfare or other evidently crazy lines of research. But this is unlikely to provide a general solution since, in Mumford’s own words, “usefulness is implicit in every kind of scientific knowledge, almost, it would seem, in proportion to its degree of abstraction and its isolation from immediate practical concerns.” A scientific conspiracy to withhold knowledge from laymen, including the technologists—or a technologists’ conspiracy to ration inventions—is quite unlikely to bring about a great change in “megatechnical society.”
The present crisis of megatechnical society would therefore exist even if the scientists showed greater humility, a greater sense of social responsibility, and a greater awareness of the limits of their favorite methods. Probably, so long as the system did not break down, even a mass refusal of the ablest and most socially conscious to practice science would simply mean that a profession already swollen, by its very numerical expansion, with mediocre or uncritical operators of research routines, would be more exclusively in the hands of such people.
On the other hand, there are some things for which the prevailing scientific orthodoxy can more plausibly be blamed. Mumford is right to criticize this orthodoxy, not only in so far as it implies—and perhaps echoes—the assumptions of a society of unlimited accumulation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in so far as it deliberately narrows the scope of what we can “know” to what we can measure and state quantitatively, reproduce or falsify experimentally, or formulate mathematically. The results of this distinction between “hard” and “soft” knowledge, the former being regarded as in some sense more real when it is only more manageable, are perhaps most dangerously absurd in the social and life sciences. There they lead not merely to the grotesqueries of behaviorism and the trivialities of most hard social science research, but to the wholesale practical application of ridiculously inadequate knowledge.
It does not matter so much that some fools substitute the measurement of the frequency, duration, and physiological symptoms of sexual intercourse for the study of love, which escapes graphs, or even for that of sex as we actually know it, which is a more complex phenomenon than can be reproduced in a laboratory. What is more tragic is the blind confidence with which the enormously complex interplay of nature and social and individual human life is disrupted by the application of a technology developed without any thought of its natural and social consequences, and of a few propositions derived from “human sciences” virtually precluded by their design from being able to deal with life as actually lived by people.
Men know little more about how human beings live together than what they have learned empirically in the course of some thousands of years of doing it. What puport to be the human and social sciences may actually diminish our knowledge, in so far as they substitute their confident inadequacy for the actual knowledge and praxis of man’s social experience. The “development” economists of the 1950s wrote cookery books: take ingredients A through N, mix and stir, and the result will be the “take-off into self-sustained growth” in any country requiring it. They have learned that things are not so simple, which good writers and historians could have told them from the start, but the costs of the lesson are not borne by them.
Mumford is perfectly right to criticize this dangerous botching, and his criticism comes suitably from a man who has devoted his life to the study of cities and town-planning, the history of which is a textbook illustration of how little men actually know about planning a human environment. In this context scientific hubris is properly to be attacked. Its most harmless function is to turn the social sciences into a lay theology, by means of which empirical policy-makers convince themselves of their own rectitude. Economists are hired today as preachers used to be in less enlightened ages, or as lawyers and historians were, to establish the territorial claims of governments, because the present equivalent of virtue, theological soundness, legality, and historic precedent is some kind of quantifiable excess of gain over loss, however notional. The objects for which such reassurance was and is sought are not necessarily bad, and the casuistry may not be without academic interest. However, whether the techniques of confirmation are those of accountancy, law, or consulting oracles, their function is to give moral ratification to decisions already taken on other grounds.
On the other hand, a most disastrous situation arises when both policymakers and scientists really believe that they can “solve” social problems the way engineers build bridges (and even the engineers have a growing tendency to think they know more about their jobs than they do, cutting down that traditional and sensible protection, the “margin of safety,” to danger levels). If human beings and societies were reducible to a limited bundle of quantifiable motivations and aims, as corporations can be reduced to rational profit maximizers—or however else current fashion chooses to define them—this might be at least theoretically possible, though of course it would eliminate precisely those problems to which the solution purports to apply, those of men in societies.
There is no difficulty in programming a computer to write love poetry, if the recipient is to be another computer. But even businessmen are “economic men” only during office hours, and frequently not even then. Only corporations, governments, armies can be treated as “persons” (at least by the law) without having to bother about human characteristics. No doubt they would go ahead without the blessings of science, or hire themselves pseudo-scientists to bless them if they could find no real ones. They already do so on a large scale, to the benefit of university departments of political science. But it might be a little better if they did not feel they had truth and reason behind them, as well as power, profit, and manifest destiny. The most powerful pages of Mumford’s book are those in which he demonstrates the limitations of orthodox scientific methods when applied to humanity, and adds an eloquent voice to the others who already call upon intellectuals to stop committing treason to their calling.
Yet the weakness of Mumford’s analysis is that he provides no actual alternative, but merely a critique and a warning. He demonstrates the impossibility of solving the problems generated by megatechnics through more megatechnics, and provides us with numerous good reasons for not doing what governments, corporations, and private citizens in the developed world insist on doing. This is salutary, for we have been so brainwashed into the belief that technological progress (identified as what happens in the US) is irresistible and independent of human volition, that the mere assertion of our ability to choose not to go on making better mousetraps has a certain liberating force. If we try, however, to discover not what Mumford thinks we should stop doing but what we should do, we are likely to be frustrated.
It is not very helpful to know that
…mankind will need to undergo something like a spontaneous religious conversion: one that will replace the mechanical world picture with an organic world picture, and to give to the human personality…the precedent it now gives to machines and computers.
The criteria of mechanism are quantity, specialization, economy of effort, power, and utility; those of organicism “efflorescence,” “organized superfluity,” “qualified plenitude,” mixing rather than separation, and so on. The very vagueness and abstraction of such phrases indicate their limitations. “The unbaring of man’s historic past during the past two centuries may well prove a more important contribution to man’s survival than all his other scientific knowledge.” At least one historian, though grateful for a free advertisement, cannot repress the question: just how?
Of course one is in favor of a return to finding fulfillment and liberation in work, under a mixed and controlled economy inspired by something like the old craft spirit, where the demand for beauty and quality controls quantity, and tradition, the historic experience of living, provides “support for the human ego.” One applauds the sentiments, though unsure whether they mean more than “I would like to live somewhere in Tuscany, but on an adequate income.” But alas, it is the weakness of preachers that, with all their certainty about sin and its consequences, and—perhaps less confidently—about virtue and its consequences, they have been notoriously vague about the mechanism of substituting the one for the other on a global scale.
One does not, of course, expect Mumford to formulate yet another program for social improvement, such as could (and almost certainly would) be discussed at unstructured roundtable conferences of the right kind of intellectuals, and later funded by foundations, corporations with a sense of public relations, and the US government, until it went the way of its predecessors. He is right in rejecting the entire closed system of the Pentagon of Power, which will not become an open or human one by these means. But readers who are tempted to regard his total condemnation of it as an implied call to revolution should be warned. It is not. Mumford has no idea of how to get rid of it, or what would happen if we did, or what we would have to do when we did. His only proposal, apart from support for every local campaign for conservation or other marginal scratchings on the thick skin of the great Leviathan, is the preacher’s well-known last resort, the change of mind:
For those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.
Alas, it does not even sound convincing as rhetoric.
Hence the function of books such as this is a conservative one. At best they may act as a slight brake on a system on which they remain as parasitic as the youthful dropouts are in their way, a fact which Mumford does not fail to note. They will encourage men and women of good will, some means, access to the media, and a lot of energy—i.e., the characteristic liberal middle-class activists—to multiply their efforts to stop redwoods being cut down, supersonic planes from ruining our lives, chemicals from poisoning the earth in those parts where this process can be conveniently watched. They will help us to conserve what has not already been destroyed, and to make a large number of small, but humanly important, local improvements. They are to be welcomed for this reason.
At worst, however, such a book as this one will be read with admiration and reverence, as the great Victorian prophets—such as Carlyle and Ruskin—were read by the top-hatted ancestors of modern intelligent technocrats. “How true,” its readers will reflect, “how wise, how important it is to assert the supremacy of human values over all else. How splendid that we have such spirits among us!” If they are persons of energy, influence, and good will, they may even set out to solve Mumford’s “central problem of technics,” that of “creating human beings capable of understanding their own nature sufficiently to control, and where necessary suppress, the forces and mechanisms they have brought into existence,” by means of a program of mass education planned by the best sociological and psychological experts, with the aid of the best computer technicians. And, of course, plenty of money.
November 19, 1970