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  • The Spirit of the Hive
  • Martha Banta (bio)
Machine-Age Ideology, Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911–1939. By John M. Jordan. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. 332 pages. $39.95 (cloth).

One of the striking accomplishments of this excellent study is the way it consistently maintains our interest even as it tracks the activities of some of the most boring people imaginable. John Jordan refuses to settle for the cheap thrills and easy excitements that breed on conspiracy narratives of mastery and control. True, the headnote to Jordan’s introduction suggests the possibility of such plots, drawn as it is from the cautionary text of We by the Russian avant-garde novelist Evgeny Zamyatin. Elite troops take as their “mission” the call “to subjugate to the beneficent yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets”; if there is any resistance to the plan to bring “mathematically faultless happiness” to the cosmic community, “our duty will be to force them to be happy.” 1

Jordan strips all melodrama from his account of the attempts by a variety of social engineers to impose the beneficent yoke of reason on the unknown beings who made up America’s populace in the years between the Progressive Era and the close of the New Deal. Demonization is absent from the meticulously detailed minibiographies of the men who led the [End Page 121] march toward what they viewed as rational, apolitical, effective solutions to the nation’s social problems. Perhaps this is what makes Machine-Age Ideology so intrinsically frightening. We encounter not the banality of evil; rather, the banality of good intentions based on woefully inadequate readings of the relations among engineering techniques, administrative responsibilities, and individual needs.

Jordan warns throughout against viewing the application of management theories to government practices by his wide assortment of reformers “only in terms of its painful consequences”; he reminds us that the “hierarchical logic” they held dear has always threatened “the delicate balance of democratic politics”; he urges us to recognize that many of their reforms had “genuinely humanitarian aspirations” and that they “asked many of the right questions” (8). Still, there is no doubt they played the devil’s game. Unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist system was their given, and although their stated aim was to elevate industrial productivity to the plane of moral virtue, they came to see social ills “not as moral problems but as managerial ones” (7).

Taking the machine as their model of perfection, Jordan’s “rational reformers” hoped to make over the lives of America’s citizenry into the sacred image of the machine. Herein lies the difficulty they often pretended did not exist: people can become very like machines, but not quite; rational action can be imposed from on high, but not fully; individualism can be subsumed into corporate needs, but not entirely. Paradox, not perfection, abounded when the technocratic elites tried to force personal particulars to fit statistical absolutes.

Those who prefer villainous master texts should not read past Jordan’s introduction. Students of social history who press forward will find much to profit them. Those stimulated by Foucaultian exposés of insidious systems that impose coercive norms for health and happiness will be rewarded, if they can forgive Jordan’s failure ever to mention Foucault by name.

Do not look to Machine-Age Ideology for theories, esoteric or otherwise. Jordan’s method is no more (and certainly no less) than responsible, clear-headed, straightforward readings of masses of material gathered by a trained historian concentrating on the roles played by a select but extensive sampling of engineers, managers, academics, journalists, and reformers who “idolized technology while chronically worrying about its implications” (1). [End Page 122]

The closest Jordan comes to theorizing lies in his statement, “I argue that the symbolic and metaphorical understandings we make from our technics decisively shape our culture and institutions” (2). Fighting against both “radicalism on the left and plutocracy on the right,” the rational reformers were armed with the understanding that “those who define the terms usually win the debate” (4, 5). Metaphors were one means by which they could make a match in managerial...

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