The rise of the technocratic movement
Despite his background in engineering, Ross finds great fault with technocratic answers to the crisis in the West.
Technocracy was a social movement of the 1930s that arose in response to the Great Depression. Convinced that the capitalist wage system was not able to deal with high level technology, technocrats argued that the depression had been caused by a “breakdown of the industrial process”, which was an engineering problem, and not one that representative government or business would be able to understand, much less fix and prevent.1 They thus envisioned the replacement of democracy by a leadership of technicians and engineers able to undertake the massive social engineering project the crisis demanded. As William Akin, historian of the movement summarizes, “The technocrats centered on the technicians — especially engineers, who became, in their minds, the real producers of wealth — as the efficient, scientific, anti-capitalist, elite capable of reorienting the economic order around rational production and distribution. Theirs was a clarion call for technicians to plan and engineer the new order.”2
In this article on the technocratic movement, Ross opens with the description of a group of German and American engineers and laborers who were sent by their companies to the Soviet Union to deliver and set up machines and factory installations purchase by the Russians. The workers, concerned only with issues of material wellbeing, returned to the West rid of their previous Bolshevist sympathies: after seeing that the Russians were less well-off than they were, they espoused a new set of bourgeois values. The engineers, however, returned as staunch Bolsheviks, because, in the Soviet system, engineers had the power to undertake projects on massive scales: they, and not bankers or bureaucrats, called the shots.
This is the dream of the technocrats, Ross argues, “the uprising of the engineers”. Given his background in engineering and his opposition to democratic government, we might expect Colin Ross to be sympathetic to the technocratic movement. But in this article, he establishes his opposition, based on his notion of Weltanschauung. “Man doesn’t live from bread alone,” he argues, “and every rational organization, regardless of how ingenious its conception, will fail if it doesn’t correctly assess and integrate the irrational elements”. He opposes the movement, because it only addresses the material, not the spiritual-ideological side of things. In the late 1920s, Ross had already argued that the machine must be “infused with magic,”3 must, in other words, be integrated into a European worldview that “recognizes the magic in technology”. (See Bringing magic to the machine)
Colin Ross. Aufstand der Ingenieure. Vossische Zeitung 1933 Feb 19; 4.
1 William E. Akin. Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900-1941. Berkeley:University of California Press;1977;64.
2 William E. Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900-1941. Berkeley;University of California Press;1977;x.
3 Colin Ross. Die Welt auf der Waage: der Querschnitt von 20 Jahren Weltreise. 29. Aufl. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus;1937;86.