Technocracy vs. Humanism (Then and Now)

In his recent book Harvard and the Unabomber, Alston Chase describes how Theodore Kaczynski, a 16-year-old Harvard student in 1958, suffered traumatizing abuse as an unwitting test-subject in a CIA-connected psychology experiment designed to manipulate human behavior under intensive isolation and harsh interrogation (and also ultimately: LSD and torture).  This humiliating, formative experience, Chase argues, shaped Kaczynski’s dislike for the techno-scientific manipulation and control of human beings.  But Chase also maintains that the Harvard Gen Ed. Curriculum itself—which included moral philosophy as well as critiques of modern civilization (Mumford, Veblen, etc.)—could only exacerbate despair about the state of the modern, “civilized” world.   At that time, little more than a decade after the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the growing Cold War arms race—made possible by the militarized, extremely well-funded, scientific elite–hung like the proverbial sword of Damocles over the fate of humanity.

On the one hand, by the mid-20th century, technocrats and applied scientists had attained devastating influence over public policy and international relations. Trained at a technical university, the architect Albert Speer had risen to become Hitler’s notably efficient Minister of Armaments.  By the Fifties, nuclear physicist Edward Teller was successfully promoting his creation—the hydrogen bomb—by politically manipulating Cold War fears (and even advocating the possible benefits of a “limited” nuclear war).  By the Sixties, Robert S. McNamara–statistician, WW2 bombing planner, auto executive—escalated the genocidal horrors of the Vietnam War as U.S. Secretary of Defense.  (The penultimate technocrat, he would eventually admit to a virtual ignorance of the actual historical struggles of the peoples of Indochina.)

But, at the same time, in this post-WW2 period, public intellectuals and literary figures were shaping a revived “mini-Enlightenment” of sorts—renewing, once more, the 18th century vision of progressive reason, universal human rights, and “the dignity of man.”   In the shadow of this new “atomic age,” seeking to prevent another, possibly final, war (and associated war crimes), world nations including the U.S. ratified the Nuremberg Charter, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Concurrently, arms control initiatives were sponsored by leading intellectuals (Russell-Einstein Manifesto, SANE, Linus Pauling, etc.)

Moreover, despite the atmosphere of Cold War political repression (“internal security”), many prominent artists and writers who had abandoned Stalinist Communism still embraced some version of socialist-humanism (often jeopardizing their careers: witness the Hollywood Ten).  Playwright Arthur Miller combined a post-Ibsenesque social realism with an earnest moral humanism.  His plays—such as “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible”—ripped away the social artifice of bourgeois hypocrisy and ideological persecution.  And like existential humanists (notably Camus), Miller emphasized the ultimate autonomy (and thus dignity) of each individual’s moral practice.   Pop-sociology tracts assailed mass-conformism (e.g., David Riesman, Vance Packard); and the youthful Colin Wilson, self-taught intellectual, glorified the defiant rebel/artist in his bestselling The Outsider (1956).

Although academic psychology continued its disturbing trend toward behavior-modification and social control (e.g., Skinner), alternate psychology was bringing deeper self-awareness and social sensitivity to American attitudes.  Dr. Benjamin Spock, A. S. Neill (Summerhill), Maslow’s humanistic psychology—all emphasized the intrinsic value of the individual’s free growth and self-realization.  Psychoanalysis itself—as both a theory of human nature and a therapeutic endeavor toward deeper self-understanding—was tacitly accepted (repressions, inner conflicts, unconscious motivations, etc.).  Such notions as sexual neuroses, “Freudian slips,” the Oedipus complex—became so well-known that they could be dramatized (and satirized) in innumerable films (such as Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove, 1963).  In sum: whether focusing on child-rearing or education, the goal of this humanistic psychology was healthy psycho-emotional development—not “adjustment” to the demands of the petty dictators of the military, bureaucracy, workplace (and home?).

Likewise, at least by the early Sixties, genuine social reform became a desirable goal for both activists and applied sociologists (poverty, racism, housing, health care).  Thus, the prevailing respect for such ideals as the “public sector,” “public service,” and the “public interest.”  Correspondingly, college students gravitated toward liberal-arts fields (history, sociology/social work, anthropology), with the ultimate aim of employment as educators or in social-service/counseling professions.  In the McCarthyite Fifties, a number of prominent public intellectuals and professors had found forums to advocate disarmament and détente with the Soviets–and, by the Sixties, “socialism with a human face” (e.g., C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, etc.).  If not explicitly socialist, progressive historians such as Richard Hofstadter still boldly critiqued U.S. imperialism and corporate power in a manner seldom seen today (except in radical publications such as Dissident Voice).

But–ultimately?  In this collision between humanistic/socialist values vs. totalitarian technocracy, the latter “won” (or so it seemed).  In 2013, “value-free” (amoral) weapons scientists are still devising new WMD, and techno-entrepreneurs seek lucrative government contracts with the latest “system” of authoritarian social control (more invasive than ever—as the NSA revelations have shown).

AND YET…once again, in our 21st century world, an ethos of universal human values is unmistakably in the ascendant.  No doubt the horrors and senseless waste of two recent wars of U.S. aggression have galvanized world opinion—as has the dramatic success of a revitalized social democracy in Latin America.  Truly, with the assistance of globalized alternate media (and the global solidarity it has helped to foster), hundreds of millions of human beings have already begun to recognize that–“We are the 99%.”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.