A CRITIQUE OF EVERYTHING: TECHNOCRACY

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The following is an excerpt from Kenneth Zaretzke’s article Ethics, Environment, and Society or A Critique of Everything.  It first appeared in Soli Deo Gloria (1976), a festschrift for Dr. John H. Gerstner (edited by R.C. Sproul).

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Technocracy is a rationalistic philosophy. It emphasizes the superiority of mind over matter, and rationality over spirituality. Although the technocratic society is itself fairly recent (beginning with the advent of the industrial revolution), the underlying philosophy has been around much longer. This philosophy, or worldview, actually has two seemingly disparate strands: Judaeo-Christian thought and Enlightenment thought. The Judaeo-Christian view is of an orderly universe, with man as the unique steward of this world or universe. The Enlightenment accepted the Judaeo-Christian conclusion, but not its premise. Increasingly, Enlightenment thought divorced the creation from the Creator. Thus, man could go forth to conquer without being shackled by the Creator. And conquer he did, as nature well knows. The idea was that man could gain mastery over his own fate as he gained knowledge and power. This quest for power and knowledge too often meant the ruthless conquest of nature, and—irony of ironies—nature has chosen to submit to exploitation no longer. Man’s victories turned out to be Pyrrhic victories. He won some battles, but she is winning the war. So today rationalistic man stands in a deep well of his own making.

The rationalistic mind that created the technocracy is the same mind that committed brutalities in the twentieth century on a scale previously unheard of. The technology that gave us so much also helped to dehumanize us. Yet we rush pell-mell ahead; day by day, our technologies outstrip our capacity to handle them. There is nothing to prevent still another serious war from breaking out, and as we create deadlier weapons with our technology a war becomes potentially more destructive. Imagine uninhibited biological warfare. Yet the technocracy rolls on, barely hindered by the prophetic voices crying bleakly into the concrete wilderness.

Come, let us build for ourselves a city ...

Come, let us build for ourselves a city …

This is a happy generation for the social planners. While men are agonizing over the seemingly irreversible breakdown of society, the social planners see their opportunity to fashion out of this battered machine a brave new world of their own making, by controlled euthenics and eugenics. Eugenics, the science of life, is an important discipline today, and perhaps the most important. Now, my view is that eugenics, as a true science, has much to offer humankind. But it is such a sophisticated science, it is also more perilous if wrongly used. This is my concern, because modern technological man has not demonstrated that he has the responsibility to handle his increased power and knowledge. This is why I emphasize the overriding importance of values. In a world whose headlines are dominated by economic depression, armed conflict, and mass starvation, one might ask, how do I have the nerve to talk about values and eugenics? But I am more worried about B. F. Skinner than about [Arab terrorism]. I am more concerned about hearing a whimper than a bang. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the world will ever end with a bang unless it has already been whimpering with sickness. Before every sudden catastrophe comes a slow but steady erosion at the roots.

C. S. Lewis, an intellectual carpenter who never failed to hit the nail on the head, refers to social planners as the Innovators. The term carries a negative connotation and is thus a good description of those technocrats whose tribe is, unfortunately, on the increase. B. F. Skinner (a euthenist, not a eugenist as the above paragraph might indicate) was one of the leading Innovators. He was a true materialist and a true technocrat. He styled himself, I suppose, as a prophet; and if he was persecuted by the defenders of freedom and dignity, it was because a prophet is without honor in his own country. If there is not a shift into a stable post-industrial society, Skinner’s view will certainly become the dominant Weltanschauung in the near future. Skinner looked at the social malaise and said, None of these social programs will work; the only answer is to get rid of autonomous man (the Judaeo-Christian man, the man of freedom and dignity). His solution was to condition man psychologically, to make man in the Innovator’s image. It is hard to capture the earth-shattering frankness of Skinner’s proposal. He wanted to make man better. But he does not add that he has his own idea of how to make a better man. Now we are brought to a very obvious difficulty: who will watch the Watchers? Who will guard the Guardians? Who (I say it irreverently) will skin Skinner? It is at times like this that I wish G. K. Chesterton were still alive, for Chesterton could refute the deadly serious folly of the Innovators like no other man.

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But who will guard the guardians?

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The problem Quis Custodiet? is a critical one in the technocracy. My strong feeling is that this question is insoluble in technocratic, rationalistic culture. Modern culture stands without a sturdy philosophical, axiological base, and as such the technocracy is foredoomed to failure. My skepticism rests on a keen observation by Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago (forced labor on a mass scale—the height of technical perfection!):

Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.

Power and knowledge without values and wisdom is the surest road to despotism.

Within the Innovators’ scheme, the choice is not, as some think, between regimented order and social chaos, but between anarchy and tyranny. Both extremes are unsatisfying.

How unfortunate, when society needs spiritual guidance more than ever before, that theologians like Harvey Cox and Joseph Fletcher have become technocrats. Strangely, the situation ethicist Fletcher styles himself as a radical, but it is difficult to see what is radical about a commitment to the machinery of a dying society. There is nothing more common today than the easy capitulation to technological might, and I am careful of anyone who calls this “radical.” Actually, it could not be more conservative or conformist. Theodore Roszak notes this, too, in The Making of a Counter Culture, and mildly castigates modern theologists for being defenders of the technocracy, and ethicist Leon Kass jokingly refers to “that new breed of techno-theologians who, after having pronounced God dead, disclose that God’s dying command was that mankind should undertake its limitless, no-holds-barred self-modification by all feasible means.” In The Eco-Spasm Report, like Future Shock a rather spurious book (“high-class journalism,” according to Roszak) that raises some valid points, Alvin Toffler mentions the concept of net, as contrasted with gross, energy and resources. This concept, which includes all the variables in a technological process—the software as well as the hardware—is based on systems analysis, and it is not as new as Toffler seems to indicate. It is, in fact, the first thing learned by every student of environmental studies. The increasing emphasis on systems analysis—the discipline of the inter-relationships among biological, physical, and social systems—is welcome.

But systems analysis has its limits. It is confined to the technical, phenomenal world and cannot provide a value foundation for the culture. Systems theory is helpless when it comes to determining values or purpose; it is like the finest whole-wheat bread—it fills a need, but not every need, for man is still in want of a shelter over his head. Toffler speaks of physical ecology and social ecology; I call for moral ecology as well. Toffler refers to eco-spasm; I suggest theologo-, philo,- or religio-spasm(!).

The Nazis were social "scientists" too ...

The Nazis were social engineers too …

Halfway between Technocracy and Transformation are such futurologists as Robert Theobald (Habit and Habitat, etc.) and John Friedmann (Retracking America). Theobald contrasts the industrial era’s linear, or structural, mode of perception with the systemic, or sapiental, thinking of the incoming post-industrial society. He emphasized that the post-industrial society is characterized by communications rather than cybernetics. In his view, “We are suffering from a malfunctioning society—amondie—rather than malfunctioning individuals—anomie.” Theobald’s presupposition is that society will collapse if the present trends of linear expansion are allowed to run their course. Similarly, Friedmann argues that functional rationality —that of the “expert,” and focused on means—needs to be balanced by substantial rationality—the domain of the “actor” which is concerned with ends. He suggests that the gap between the expert and the actor can be bridged by transactive planning, which is essentially a learning theory that incorporates dialogue. Friedmann, who is concerned with the “crisis of values,” places moral values at the center of this new relationship. He calls Karl Mannheim, the German sociologist, a precursor of the guidance systems which he advocates. Interestingly, Friedmann uses the term “post-industrial” to refer to the present social order. This is not the same sense in which Theobald uses the term. And although he is himself a futurologist in the larger sense, Friedmann tosses in a firm rebuke for some futurologists: “Statements about the future … do not constitute valid scientific knowledge. It would be more to the point to think of them as prophecy, wishful thinking, or willful distortions. . . . Futurologists . . . are either unabashed ideologists paid for their labor by those who seek to justify their own actions or escapists fleeing from the very tough and real issues of the day.” At its center, futurology is a legitimate science, but too much of it tends to be weak and faddish. Prophecy today is a booming business, and it is no exaggeration to say that its business is hula-hoops, yo-yos, and Swabbies.

Robert Heilbroner serves as a spokesman for many when he writes that:

The human prospect is not an irrevocable death sentence. It is not an inevitable doomsday toward which we are headed, although the risk of enormous catastrophes exists. The prospect is better viewed as a formidable array of challenges that must be overcome before human survival is assured, before we can move beyond doomsday. These challenges can be overcome—by the saving intervention of nature if not by the wisdom and foresight of man. The death sentence is therefore better viewed as a contingent life sentence—one that will permit the continuance of human society, but only on a basis very different from that of the present, and probably only after much suffering during the period of transition.

George Steiner’s Bluebeard’s Castle—which I consider to be the best description of modern society that I have read—because we usually ignore the lessons of history, and, in this case, the lesson is that the world hangs by a thread. Life and liberty are precarious things indeed. Historically, man has acted too hastily in pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and—before he leaves ground—applauding his ascension. Today, the technocratic civilization is dying. The question is: what took so long for us to recognize that? The wise elders of each generation, it seems, are always the naive youth of their own period. Won’t this teach us to be wary of the peril of naiveté? Unfortunately, it seems not. And as Technocracy reaches its destructive climax, we are struck by a strange and shocking sight: the child of Technocracy is a pagan.

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