June 28, 2021
On Oct. 13, 1940, a Regina chiropractor named Joshua Haldeman appeared in city court to face two charges under the Defence of Canada Act.
His alleged offence was belonging to Technocracy Incorporated, an organization that had been banned by the Canadian government several months earlier as part of a larger sweep of groups it considered subversive to the war effort.
Technocracy Incorporated was not a political movement – in fact, politicians or members of political parties were not allowed to join. It was founded in New York City in 1933 as an educational and research organization promoting a radical restructuring of political, social and economic life in Canada and the United States, with science as its central operating principle.
There would be no politicians, business people, money or income inequality. Those were all features of what Technocracy called the “price system,” and it would have to go.
There would be no countries called Canada or the United States, either – just one giant continental land mass called the Technate, a techno-utopia run by engineers and other “experts” in their fields. In the Technate, everyone would be well-housed and fed. All material needs would be taken care of, whether you had a job or not.
Joshua Haldeman was a leader of Technocracy Incorporated in Canada from 1936 to 1941, but eventually became disillusioned with both the organization and the country, and packed up his young family to start life anew in South Africa.
In June 1971, Haldeman’s daughter Maeve gave birth to his first grandson. His name is Elon Musk.
In 2019, Musk tweeted, “accelerating Starship development to build the Martian Technocracy.”
Musk’s estimated net worth today is more than $150 billion US. He’s clearly done very well inside the price system his grandfather would have railed against. But Musk has not completely abandoned his Technocracy roots.
Musk doesn’t talk about a Technate on Earth, but he has invested billions developing rockets to send people to Mars, with the intent to colonize it. He wants to see a city of a million people there by 2050.
In 2019, Musk tweeted, “accelerating Starship development to build the Martian Technocracy.”
Most of Technocracy Incorporated’s ideas for the Technate were neither practical nor achievable. But they raised at least two important questions that we’re still grappling with today: How should governments respond when large numbers of people lose their jobs to automation – and how can representative democracy, with all its obvious imperfections, function effectively in a world where science and technology play an ever more dominant role?
‘A clash between obsolescence and modernity’
In a speech to an American audience in 1963, Howard Scott, the founder and leader of Technocracy Incorporated, declared that “as far as Technocracy’s ideas are concerned, we’re so far left that we make communism look bourgeois.”
That may not have been the most effective recruiting slogan at the height of the Cold War, but Scott wasn’t entirely wrong.
Technocracy was far from the only protest movement to emerge from the economic collapse of the 1930s. Social Credit in Alberta and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, the forerunner of the NDP, also attracted a lot of support. Some groups across the political spectrum had ties to European political movements. Some had charismatic leaders, like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin in the United States.
But Technocracy was a uniquely North American movement that may have been the most radical of them all. And in the depths of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Americans were prepared to embrace it.
Technocracy’s ideology defies easy characterization. It was anti-capitalist and anti-democratic, but not fascist. It was anti-government, but not libertarian. It believed in a radical form of social and economic equality, but it was not Marxist.
It rejected all those ideologies because none of them accepted the idea that science and technology were transforming North American life, and that only highly trained engineers and experts were capable of building a “new” North America.
While other political parties and protest groups were touting plans for putting people back to work, Technocracy response was: don’t even bother. The world had changed, and the jobs destroyed by machines were not coming back.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most manufacturing was done by hand, and there were never enough goods to go around; it was an economy based on scarcity. Now, machines could produce more than enough of everything for everybody with significantly less human labour.
But this industrial system capable of producing abundance was being stymied by the price system, a pre-industrial, scarcity-based construct ill-suited to a world where machines were replacing humans in the workplace.
At the heart of the price system was money. It was what forced people to go into debt, break the law, become greedy and engage in all kinds of other bad behaviours. But help was on the way.
“The march of technology, with its increasing abundance, will destroy every value of the price system,” Scott declared in a speech in Sylvan Lake, Alta., during a western Canadian speaking tour in September 1939. “It is a clash between obsolescence and modernity, between technology and value, between science and chaos.”
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because doomsday scenarios about massive unemployment and social unrest caused by technological change have been around since at least the Industrial Revolution.
In the 1770s, when the use of the spinning jenny became widespread, many weavers who had been spinning cloth by hand from their homes lost their jobs. But the spinning jenny made it cheaper to produce cloth, which meant more people could afford to buy clothes, which meant many more of them were needed to work in the factories where the cloth was now being produced.
This has been the story of technological change up to now: The jobs that machines have taken they have invariably given back in even greater numbers. The price system has proven to be much more resilient and adaptable than doomsayers like Howard Scott had imagined.
But today, as robots and artificial intelligence make ever deeper inroads into our offices and factories, the doomsayers are back, predicting a tsunami of unemployment that will crash into workplaces like banks and law offices, which until now have largely resisted automation. They fear this time, the story will in fact be different.
According to a 2019 report by the U.K. research group Oxford Economics, around 1.7 million jobs have already been lost to robots globally since 2000. Even the people who have helped engineer the tsunami are worried.
“We are experiencing the greatest economic and technological shift in human history,” declared Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang during his unlikely run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “We need a way to help millions of Americans transition through this period.”
Yang’s solution was a $1,000 US-a-month universal basic income. It’s an idea that has gained considerable traction among Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs in recent years – even among those who are usually opposed to any kind of expansion of government.
At the World Government Summit in Dubai in 2017, Elon Musk ― who constantly wages war with agencies trying to regulate his cars and rockets, and whose plan for fully autonomous vehicles could cost millions of jobs ― expressed his support for a guaranteed basic income.
“Mass unemployment” will be a “massive social challenge,” Musk warned. Echoing words that his grandfather likely uttered many times, Musk concluded, “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. With automation will come abundance.”
‘You can only patch up the symptoms so far’
For Technocracy, schemes like a universal basic income simply postpone the inevitable day of reckoning for the price system.
“You can’t fumble along with the system and just patch up the symptoms,” explained Tom Mason in a recent phone interview from his home in Tampa Bay, Fla. Mason is 99 years old and has been involved with Technocracy since the 1940s.
“Politicians today don’t want to address the disease. They just want to treat the symptoms ― and you can only patch up the symptoms so far.”
For Technocracy, addressing the “disease” meant doing away with the price system and the political infrastructure that supported it. They could provide citizens with far more security than any kind of guaranteed basic income.
“Under the Technate, we will be responsible for the health and well-being of every human being,” Howard Scott declared. “That is more than any political government ever did.”
Technocracy’s plan was to replace the price system with a system based on energy. In the 1920s, Scott and his colleagues began a hugely ambitious program called the Energy Survey of North America. The idea was to establish a value for all the goods and services produced on the continent, not by measuring how much labour was expended or how much money was spent, but on the amount of energy used to produce them.
They would then divide the total amount of energy used by the number of citizens in the Technate over the age of 25, and issue each of those citizens an equal number of Energy Certificates, whether they were employed or not. These certificates would be the Technate’s currency.
Every time you bought something, some of your energy credits would be deducted, and because the certificates would be issued directly to the owner, they couldn’t be bought, sold, traded or stolen. No one would be able to accumulate more than anyone else. It was a prescription for a radically egalitarian state that might have made a Bolshevik blush.
In the Technate, your work life wouldn’t begin until age 25. Once you joined the labour force, you’d work 16 hours a week, you’d get about 78 days of vacation a year and you’d retire when you’re 45.
Only a small percentage of adults in the Technate would have jobs, and Scott thought that should be a cause for celebration. Most of those “hand tool” jobs were not very good to begin with, so why weep if they could now be done by a machine? People who clung to old-fashioned ideas about the value of work were “suckers.”
“If you want to know what work has done for you, go home and look in the mirror and see what a mess you are.”
“One of the lowest social diseases is the belief in the morality of work,” he told an audience in Calgary. “If you want to know what work has done for you, go home and look in the mirror and see what a mess you are.”
Scott believed that people, freed from having to work for a living and secure in the knowledge that all their material needs would be taken care of, would be able to fulfill themselves through the arts, recreation, religion or education, all of which would thrive in the Technate.
This idea that people longed to be relieved of the burden of their labour has been a staple of utopian literature since the 19th century, but it ignores some deeper realities.
Speaking to the World Government Summit in 2017, Musk acknowledged that a guaranteed basic income would address only one part of the problem caused by technological unemployment. “The much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning?” Musk asked. “A lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. So if there’s no need for your labour, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”
‘On a different plane than regular people’
Howard Scott was a tireless worker on behalf of Technocracy Incorporated, an organization he founded and led until his death in 1970. He spent most of those years travelling across North America preaching his path to a better world. A book called Words and Wisdom of Howard Scott, prepared by a Technocracy chapter after his death, runs to more than 2,000 pages.
Scott was a polarizing figure. For better or for worse, he was always the public face of Technocracy.
At six foot five, Scott was an imposing figure with a deep, resonant voice aided by a lifetime of chain-smoking cigarettes. In his public interactions, he often came across as arrogant and condescending, but most Technocracy members were captured by his intelligence, charisma and ability to reel off facts and figures about global industrial production.
“He was on a different plane than regular people,” recalls longtime Technocracy member Ed Blechschmidt, in a recent interview from his home in Pennsylvania. Blechschmidt said Scott, who he first met in the ‘60s, “would talk and explain things and smile and be friendly. But if you asked him a question, he immediately would spout off twenty minutes of something you couldn't even understand.”
Scott was also a savvy marketer with a flair for the dramatic. He liked to stage what he called “symbolizations.” These were spectacles designed to show the wider world that Technocracy was a force to be reckoned with.
The largest symbolization took place in June 1947. It was called Operation Columbia and involved a motorcade of hundreds of cars that proceeded up the west coast of the U.S. into British Columbia, where Scott delivered a speech to a capacity crowd of 5,000 people at the Vancouver Forum.
In its public outings, Technocracy Incorporated had an oddly militaristic look. Its members, both men and women, wore tailored grey suits and drove cars that they also painted grey. They greeted each other with salutes.
To Scott’s critics – which included many of his former allies – the uniforms and salutes were evidence of a penchant towards authoritarianism. They considered him to be an egotistical blowhard. In fact, he appears to have seriously inflated his resume, falsely claiming to have an academic degree and work experience as an engineer. That last point mattered, because in the Technate, engineers and other experts would be in charge.
Technocracy believed that in a world that revolved around science and technology, only people with proven expertise in those areas should be responsible for its governance. That excluded all the usual suspects ― business people, lawyers, bankers, academics ― none of whom had the practical skills the modern age demanded.
“Those who create a civilization will eventually dominate it,” Scott proclaimed in a speech in Winnipeg. “The engineers and mechanics created this civilization, and will eventually dominate it.” Technocracy was building “a technological army of the functionally competent.”
This meant there would be no room and no need for democracy. All the normal functions of government ― education, health, sanitation, public safety ― would be run by experts chosen by their peers. Doctors would vote for the person in charge of the health-care system, teachers for the person who’d run the schools and so on. There would be a cabinet made up of about a hundred of these experts, and they would select a “continental director” to oversee the whole thing.
This was how Technocracy planned to overcome its core complaint with democracy: that it led to too many incompetent people being in charge, or that too many people made bad decisions because they lacked the necessary expertise or were motivated by profit, ambition or something else that would lead them astray.
‘You are not welcome among us’
This idea was not new. Plato believed society functioned best when it was run by experts. Technocracy’s focus on engineers was rooted in the conviction that there was a technological fix to almost all of society’s problems.
Today, the idea that governments are too slow, too inefficient, too lacking in expertise to solve hard problems is widely shared among the engineers and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.
This libertarian impulse has always been part of the ethos of Silicon Valley. One of its first and most forceful expressions came in 1995, when tech pioneer John Perry Barlow delivered his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel,” the Declaration began. “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Silicon Valley’s attitude towards government has become more accommodating since Barlow delivered his declaration, both out of choice and necessity. But there remains a conviction that, left to their own devices, tech companies are better able to solve problems in areas like transportation, education and health care, where decades of government regulation have put a break on innovation.
“There’s a lack of focus on efficiency,” lamented former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt on a panel about government and technology in 2019. “The reason there's no innovation in government is there's no bonuses for innovation. In fact, if you take a risk … and it fails, your career is over.”
A system “where problems can be identified through evidence, facts, reason, rather than ideological beliefs ... I think that a lot of people find that appealing.”
This is the kind of overblown rhetoric we’ve come to expect from engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and their insistence that governments should step aside in favour of true problem-solvers is clearly self-serving. But the idea that we should be looking to experts rather than politicians for solutions to massively complex problems like a deadly pandemic or a climate emergency is gaining traction everywhere.
“The idea of an apolitical world is appealing more and more to people,” argues Eri Bertsou, a senior researcher at the University of Zurich and co-editor of a 2020 book called The Technocratic Challenge to Government.
“People are tired, and they are put off by the commotion and the disagreement of representative politics,” Bertsou said. “So it's this appeal of an efficient machine-like system … where problems can be identified through evidence, facts, reason, rather than ideological beliefs. I think that a lot of people find that appealing.”
Bertsou has been studying the rise of “technocratic” governments around the world, especially in Europe. In February 2021, Mario Draghi, an economist and former president of the European Central Bank who had never held political office, was named Italian prime minister to help manage the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
Draghi is a “technocrat,” chosen for the specific experience he brings to the job. Italians are fond of technocrats, especially when times are tough, and Draghi is the fourth technocrat prime minister there since 1993. You can also find cabinet-level technocrats in Greece, France and Lebanon, among other countries. But none of them would be embraced by Technocracy, because they are still operating within the price system, still treating “symptoms,” not the disease.
While the number of technocrats in government is on the rise, so, too, is the number of populist politicians who wear their lack of expertise like a badge of honour.
During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump mocked his opponent, Joe Biden, for saying he would “listen to the scientists” when it came to managing COVID-19. “If I listened totally to the scientists,” Trump proclaimed, “we’d have a country right now that would be in a massive depression.”
But there’s been a price for not listening to the experts. Countries run by populist leaders of various shades – particularly the U.S., Brazil and the U.K. – have recorded among the highest COVID-19 death rates.
For longtime Technocracy Incorporated supporters like Ed Blechschmidt, the idea that anyone would question the science around the pandemic, or anything else, is mystifying.
“You can’t argue with science and technology,” he insisted. “Science exists and scientific fact is fact. You can’t have a political position about it. You have to recognize it and implement science.”
But as we’ve discovered during the pandemic, science can sometimes speak with many voices, and by definition, representative democracy requires a constant balancing act among competing interests. Governments have to listen to the scientists ― but also to business people, parents and others.
Bertsou believes that by insisting on finding the one correct solution to every problem, Technocracy has presented a false dichotomy. “There is not one type of scientific knowledge, and no one way of governing social problems.”
Technocracy Incorporated began nearly a hundred years ago by seeking answers to two important questions: Why on a continent so rich in natural resources, energy and industrial capacity, were so many people suffering? And how could democracy, with all its obvious imperfections, continue to function effectively in a world where science and technology played an ever more dominant role?
Technocracy’s answers to both those questions were bold, radical, overly complicated and wildly impractical. Today, no one is talking about a North American Technate or a 16-hour work week or replacing money with energy certificates. But it would be wrong to dismiss Technocracy Incorporated as just another failed utopian scheme – not while the answers to those two questions remains so elusive.