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The Michelist Revolution: Technocracy, the Cultural Front, and the Futurian Movement


Winter, Jerome. "The Michelist Revolution: Technocracy, the Cultural Front, and the Futurian Movement." The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction 1.2 (2013): 1–18. Web. http://eatonjournal.ucr.edu/articles_issue_2/winter.pdf

p.1: The original contribution this article brings to the growing critical conversation on pulp-era SF studies is an archival dissection of the Futurians, their literary legacy as an outgrowth of the Depression-era Popular Front, and their tangled relationship with one of the era’s most prominent cultural formations, the Technocracy Movement. This research uncovers the direct, ambivalent engagement of one particularly representative Futurian, John B. Michel, with the Technocracy Movement, and the underlying implications this archival research entails for our understanding of interwar SF history and culture. -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.1: in The Futurians Knight became the group’s chief chronicler, registering the seismic commercial impact the Futurian Science Literary Society had on SF history and fandom: “out of this little group came ten novelists, a publisher, two literary agents, four anthologists, and five editors (with some overlapping of roles)” -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.1: In his own memoir The Way the Future Was (1978), Frederik Pohl likewise recalls the subcultural Futurian disputes as the de rigueur attitude for pulp-era fan culture, and driven in large part by the fragile, easily bruised egos of the testosterone-laden post-adolescents that made up the group, and their tireless spoiling for fighting the good fight. Pohl declares, “No CIA or KGB ever wrestled so valiantly for the soul of an emerging nation as New Fandom and the Futurians did for science fiction” -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.2: In an article for Science Fiction Studies, Milner and Savage limn the Blochian utopian longing that underlay the Futurian fictionists and their image of themselves as a revolutionary cadre of Young Turks obsessed with politicizing technoculture. In Astounding Wonder (2012), Cheng similarly refers to the committed advocacy for the unrealized progressive potential of science and technology that typified Futurian writing, yet contends that the Futurians failed to create a space for science-fiction fandom in which amateur rocket clubs and science enthusiasts could co-exist with a coherent political-ethical ideology -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.2: This article stresses that the group displays a consistent commitment to a cultural critique of technocracy. Despite the complexity of the Popular Front and its byzantine cultural politics, it was no secret to the participants in the pulp-era science-fiction community that the Futurian stance closely resembled the grand technocratic rhetoric espoused by the cult-figure Howard Scott who held that unique to the modernizing interwar years was an economic-cultural state of affairs in which “this generation of Americans has the technology, the materials, and the machinery [to achieve] a new civilization”

During the economic collapse of the early 1930s, what the popular press called a “technocraze” reached an acme of activism in which radical technologically-minded leftists agitated for total governmental overhaul.

-- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.2: The Committee on Technocracy argued that best business practices might be rational and profit-maximizing for the high-powered Wall Street broker, but for the entire spectrum of society such unregulated capitalism exacerbated the division of labor and hijacked the potential abundance that optimized industry could provide. -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.3: Such plummeting economic indicators stood in stark contrast to the acceleration of seemingly miraculous new technology based on Fordist mass-production principles. The populist side to this phenomenon that the Committee inspired eventually called for messianic engineers to retake control of the world-system. This championing of the heroic technocrat contributed to the Chicago-based Technocratic Party, which was socialist and anticapitalist to the point of urging a general strike that would spark a revolution. -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.4: the term “Michelism” — as the Futurian ideology came to be called at the time — gained currency precisely because of Michel’s pivotal role as an articulate and active spokesman for the loose-knit group. This paper discusses original research on the Futurians conducted in the Eaton Collection at UCR, especially in the prozine, fanzine, and the semi-prozine archives. The rich materials housed in these archives help to shed light on a sense of the vanishing ideological context of pulp science fiction and the evolving political-cultural outlooks and attitudes of major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, or Cyril Kornbluth. And an understanding of Michelism offers a tantalizing glimpse into the radically politicized and polarized culture of New York science-fiction community in the 1940s, and its wide-ranging impact on an American technoculture slowly coming into its modern fruition. -- Highlighted apr 1, 2014

p.4: A surviving manifesto of the Futurians is the speech delivered by Donald A. Wollheim on behalf of the diffident John Michel in Philadelphia at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in October 1937. In this fiery tirade, Michel demands science fiction “smash the status quo” and advocates a “Utopian” or “idealistic” vision that would “seek the advancement of civilization along strictly scientific and humanistic lines.” To avoid extinction, science fiction, Michel declares, has to mutate and selectively adapt to “the machine that will shatter forever the reactional assault on civilization [that] is already in motion.” Michel’s intertwining of sociobiological and technocratic rhetoric literalizes the radically transformative Futurian response to the accelerated changes of their technological environment. Viewing the SF literary space as a training ground for the future engineers and technocrats, Michel contends that the fictional explorations of the universe, which science-fiction pulp magazines purveyed in large volume, constituted the utopian fulfillment of an evolutionary destiny: “it is our job to work and plan and prepare, to teach and expound for the coming of that day when the human race shall stand erect as should a man and gaze on the stark, naked cosmos with firm eyes.” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.4: While not conservatively Technocratic, the democratized technoculture that Michel and Futurians espoused developed out of the world-changing political and economic factory system institutionalized by Henry Ford and scientifically quantified by Frederick Winslow Taylor. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.5: In the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, Frank R. Paul’s iconic cover art illustrates the pitfalls and critical blindness of such Technocratic fantasies through its rhapsodic rendering of a scene from E.E. Doc Smith’s Skylark of Space. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.5: The cover neatly symbolizes the delight and wonder technological advances in the Fordist period may grant, while seemingly ignoring the manifold adverse consequences of such innovations. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.6: Michel explains, “when I first conceived of the story, I had the Technocrats in mind as the prototypes of the ‘science government.’” This cultural-historical key to reading this story is even more revealing if we remember that despite their early roots in Veblen’s theories, the Technocrats had long been associated with conservative political interests. In the 1932 Republican National Convention, for instance, Howard Scott warmed the crowd for the incumbent Great Engineer, Herbert Hoover, with soaring technocratic rhetoric to complement the fanfare of trumpets, balloons, flag-waving, and a big cinema screen. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.7: The story itself of “Year of Uniting” begins with a typically grandiose boldfaced hook characteristic of pulp magazines: “After ten years of scientific government, strictly planned economy and abundance for all, John Clayhorn realized that the price America paid for security was— freedom!” The story takes place in the American future of 1952, where an ostensible utopia of ample leisure and total security has been achieved by a revolution initiated by the Science Government. The wrenching of the Factory System away from capitalist hoarding has created a post-scarcity abundance of optimal efficiency free from starvation, labor, or sickness. New York City has been rebuilt into featureless utilitarian towers and streets paved with grey plastic. This latter detail seems to invoke specifically the fleet of grey cars and the grey automobiles with which Technocracy Inc. became notoriously reminiscent of European trappings of militarized, authoritarian power. Tobacco and alcohol has been banned by an American Gestapo who enforce a police state through spy-ray surveillance, reconditioning in psych hospitals, or summary executions John Clayhorn’s friend Gregory Sanders complains about such a brutal rule by a technocratic elite: “I dunno. It looked like a wonderful set-up. Science cleaning up the corners and all that. I wonder what really happened” (126). With unmistakable echoes of Huxley’s Brave New World, Clayhorn concurs, “The Science Government kept everyone happy, reflected Clayhorn bitterly. If they became unhappy, oblivion intervened” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.8: As a cautionary tale, “Year of Uniting” taps into a conventional narrative of the Technocracy Movement and its betrayal of utopian promise. The Technocracy Movement is often framed as a gradual compromise, a swing on the political-cultural spectrum from an anti-capitalist stance toward a pro-corporate one. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.8: In a partial defense of the much-maligned SF literature of the period, Andrew Ross connects the Technocracy Movement to Paul’s pulp illustrations, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and Streamline Moderne aesthetics: “the dreamy rhetoric of technological futurism has been taken over lock, stock, and barrel by corporate advertisers and managers in the business of selling tomorrow’s streamlined worlds” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.8: For the movement can be traced back in part to The Engineers and the Price System in which Thorstein Veblen calls for a “practical soviet of technicians,” the social planning and systematic coordination of “industrial experts, skilled technologists, who may be called ‘production engineers’, for want of a better term”

Veblen’s vision of mobilizing an elite cadre of highly trained and specialized engineers into a Platonic ideal of philosopher-kings revolved around the belief that if resources could be allocated efficiently at the industrial level, then duplication and wasted efforts could be eliminated, full employment obtained, consumer needs met, and strikes and deadlocks between unions and management made a thing of the benighted past -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.10: The thought experiment of the science-fictional premise is a fairly nuanced and perspicacious one for a nation gripped by a cataclysmic world war: what if the Allies succeed in fighting for “democracy” only to have that progressive victory immediately superseded by “traitors to science” (Raymond 135) or the techno-scientific power consolidation of monopoly capitalism? -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.12: In the first part of his autobiography Memory Yet Green (1979), Asimov declares the group was “some of the most intelligent (if sometimes erratic) people I have ever known”, highlighting that the Futurians wanted “to use science fiction as a way of fighting fascism, and it was almost impossible to this in those days without making use of Marxian rhetoric, so that these activist were accused of being Communists by the opposition” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.13: the “Foundation” series remains relevant today since it serves as a complex science-fictional allegory for cultural-political dissent, unlike what Asimov categorizes as “adventure” and “gadget” science fiction; this Hugo-winning foundational series of classic space opera holds up as a sterling example what the author—in a strange, syncretic mixture of the Campbellian and the Futurian stances— calls “social science fiction...the only branch of science fiction that is sociologically significant” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.13: To begin with, in the Foundation series, the telos of the progressive future history is emphatically not the Galactic Empire. In the “Prologue” to Second Foundation (1953), for instance, Asimov describes the Galactic Empire with a neutral, decidedly not jingoistic hand: “[The Empire] included all the planets of the Galaxy in a centralized rule, sometimes tyrannical, sometimes benevolent, always orderly”. Asimov does not celebrate liberal capitalism as anything but a weigh-station to future progress; the utopian vision of the Foundation series is consistently portrayed not as liberal capitalism, but a postscarcity technocracy. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.13: The First Foundation scientists establish trade relations with a powerful planetary kingdom, Askone, through offering their services of advanced scientific knowledge in the form of a postscarcity transmuter that miraculously converts metals into gold. The transmuter uses atomic technology, further cementing the link between the U.S. and the First Foundation. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.14: Contending that Asimov masters the cliffhanger trick in the pulp-serialization toolkit by structuring his fiction like an interlocking chain of sequential problems followed by their deferred ingenious solutions, James Gunn argues that the puzzlebox introduced in “The Merchant Princes” (published as “The Wedge” in Astounding, October 1944) that Asimov leaves unsolved until the end of the first Foundation trilogy is that of “economic deprivation” (Gunn 49). Having outsmarted the military might of imperial warlords and religious potentates, the Foundation threatens to rip apart as a result of the vast disparities the capitalist traders impose on the galaxy. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.15: Yet Bayta explains the disintegration of the newly established Foundation into the competing sovereignties of warlords and traders does not derive from an instrumentalizing domination of technology run amok. Rather, the social principles of the Foundation, and its imaginary futurological science of “psychohistory,” serves the technocratic and Taylorist ideal of retaking the means of production, controlling modern industrial technology as a means to a progressive end, and as a result optimizing efficiency and waste management: “Inertia! Our ruling class knows one law; no change. Despotism! They know one rule; force. Maldistribution! They know one desire; to hold what is theirs” (Asimov 90). Bayta and her husband Toran are partisans of an underground resistance to the despotic Foundation and as such represent the oppositional interests of the “external proletariat” -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.15: The Mule is such a statistical improbability that he foils Hari Seldon’s predictive science of psychohistory. The Mule easily manipulates the crumbling Foundation to become a ruthless dictator, and the Russian-born Jewish-American Asimov clearly intended contemporary resonances with Adolf Hitler to be unmistakable. Timmins’s cover underscores escape from a shadowy cave of illusion, past the menacing gatekeeper of the Mule, and into a dazzlingly bright future. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014

p.16: The stubborn refusal of this guileless optimism to acknowledge the unavoidable pitfalls of technocratic capitalism soon becomes a primary bone of contention that generations of later SF writers and artists found most problematic in Asimov’s influential work, not to mention those of his largely forgotten Futurian compatriots. -- Highlighted apr 2, 2014