The Rise and Fall of Social Engineering

Shortly before his passing away Karl Popper spoke with confidence of the superiority of Western Culture. Even Muslims are driving our cars and wearing our fashion, he said.
Once upon a time, back in Austria, at the beginning of our century, he was a Marxist. Then he became a philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was conferred the knighthood by queen Elisabeth for his contribution to the struggle against communist heresy. Today his rebuttals of Marx are issued in a mass scale in new, liberalised Eastern Europe.
For him the ”great democracy” on the other side of the Atlantic was as brilliant a model in 1993 as it had been in the middle of the fifties. One year after the big upheaval in the ghettos he is dwelling on the subject of how many black people had reached superior ”Evidently there is no nation on Earth more peaceloving than the US. The war in the Persian Gulf has proved this fact”(1)
He, if anybody, deserves to be named the father of social engineering. Out of his rationalism and his zeal for progress during the period preceding the great depression he forged the mythical figure that was to govern the West after the Second World War. However, he was not alone at the work. The epithet first was attributed to Herbert Hoover, who once was named ”The great Engineer” during the apparently crisis-free capitalism of the twenties. His proposed remedies against crises were borrowed from J.M. Keynes and from the theoreticians behind the Swedish welfare society, whereas his fundamental antimarxism was inspired by Karl Hayek. It was Popper who forged these elements into an ideological program. His creation was to enter into the international debate with his work ”The Open Society and its Enemies” (1945).
Herbert Tingsten, chief editor of the influential Swedish newspaper ”Dagens Nyheter”, characterised Popperïs work as ”one of the most brilliant and important pieces of research for decades in the history of ideas.” Above all he appreciated its political doctrine: ” a distinctly social reformatory and progressive liberalism”.(2) It is easy to understand Tingstenïs enthusiasm. Popperïs creation was identical to the society, the birth of which Tingsten had just been witnessing in ”the Home of the People” of Sweden – that is social democracy purified of all elements of Marxism. Swedish socialists were ”in many important respects closer to the old, liberal workers movement than to their original conception”.(3)
The art of social engineering was meant to purify the mind of the public from all remnants of anti-capitalism and class sentiment.
In comparison to the neo-liberal prophets of our days Popper, back in the 40-ties, in his criticism of Marx was close to reverent. At the end of the war capitalism carried no self-evident prestige. With its swift industrial development, and through its victory over Hitlerïs armies the Soviet Union had delivered ample evidence of the viability of socialism. The majority of western economists and politicians envisaged a series of new crises and splittings, liable to stir the western world during the next decade. Popper was acting from a defensive position. His liberalism was no triumphant liberalism.
It was not until the capitalist boom during the 50-ies and 60-ies that social engineering was to become a success. During that period the standard of dwellings rose considerably, many people suddenly could afford to buy cars and washing-machines, old and sick people were provided for in an unprecedented scale. All these new features were attributed to social engineering. Full of gratitude and confidence the citizens went to their works every morning in a paradise of full employment. Every afternoon at five they returned to have dinner and enjoy their leisure time in front of their TV. This was how everyday life in the west appeared when regarded at a distance by our rulers.
Only a few decades later the social engineer was to be pushed aside, worn out, and commonly despised by our rulers and by the ruling opinion. The blame was put on him when society again entered into an era of crisis and dissolution. Educated public opinion was to call for a new ideology, more effective in preserving their peace of mind and in increasing the coherence of society. Only the old philosopher does not seem to take notice of these new trends. He does not hear the calls for change. He never noticed the hollowness of the liberal victory. He does not feel the horror of the revenge of the underprivileged strata, blunting the joy among the upper classes in their new era of freedom.
Piecemeal reform was Popperïs panacea , the salvation from class struggle, and its revolutionary consequences. He made a distinction between ”step-wise” and ”utopian” social engineering. For him utopianism was an anathema. The Marxist conception that capitalism has to be abolished in order to improve the lot of the working man was for him clearly utopian. For him the concept of the necessity of the socialist revolution was irrational. The marxian claim of discovery of specific laws of capitalist development was attributed to irrational influences, mainly from Hegelian and Platonist superstition. Such laws of history do not exist, Popper maintained. Such laws are not compatible with rational science.
This is not to imply that he rejected the idea of regularities in the development of societies. However, in order to comply with the principle of reason these regularities have to be universal of character. They have to be metahistorical, applying to all societies – like the law of gravity will apply to any apple falling from any tree. Popper mentions ”the logic of power” and the laws of supply and demand discovered by modern economic science as examples of such regularities. Social science might be constructed applying models, presupposing a completely rational behaviour of individuals – any observed behaviour, however, would be registered as a deviation from a zero co-ordinate.(4)
Thus capitalism is turned into a set of equations in an ideal world of cost-benefit and marginal utility. The specificity of capitalism, e.g. production for profit and the commodity nature of labour power, turned into a universal rationality. The existence of exploitation – extensively dwelt on by Marx- was depicted as a temporary imperfection, provoked by an excessive supply of labour power. Social engineers would abolish aberrations, prevent crises from appearing and proceed to a rational fulfilment of any aim upheld by society – simply by manipulating the parameters of the model. Certainly, Marx deserved to be commended for pointing out the shortcomings of undomesticated capitalism. However, out of his ”historicism” he had not acknowledged the possibility of the state power to interfere with the economy to the benefit of the weak. Modern society had left the era of laissez-faire without entering into communism or socialism as Marx had believed. The east, as well as the west, were in the historical period of ”political interventionism”.(5) This period constituted no regular stage in the development of society according to Popper. It was just a ”general interpretation” of a real chain of events from a certain ”point of view” . Other western scholars were less fussy about the philosophical terminology. The MIT professor (later to become an advisor of the US government) Walt Rostow in 1959 published an anti-Communist manifesto, sketching the general principles of human development from traditional society, passing by the ”take off ” stage into the consumer’s paradise of mature industrial society. Although different nations were following different paths, the problems arising at the various stages of development were essentially identical. You just had to stick to the main road of development – not making any unnecessary fuss on the road like the Soviet Union or Germany at the beginning of the century or like the Third World more recently. According to the calculus of professor Rostow, the Soviet Union was only a couple of decades behind the US in the linear developmental progress.(6)
The mechanisms governing the development of modern industrial societies were identical, irrespectively of their political systems or ideologies. Economy was essentially a machine, the perfection of which depended of its adaptation to the model of perfect rationality. Its main principle was division of labour: some of us were to develop science and technology, the task of others was to mobilise capital , whereas others still had to exercise their painstaking and responsible leadership.
”And the population at large must be prepared to accept training for – and then to operate – an economic system whose methods are subject to regular change, and one which also confines the individual in large , disciplined organisations allocating to him specialised narrow, recurrent tasks.”(7)
In the east as well as in the west capital growth and general welfare emerged out of the patient drudge of the popular masses at the assembly lines, at their sewing machines or lathes. However, western ideologists thought, the two political orders differed in their method of control of the economy machine. The state interventionist policy of the East was a totalitarian system. Political power was burdened with irrational, collectivist conceptions – lacking countervailing institutions. Because of this deficit it tended to ignore the demand for rationality in the economical system – so Popper maintained. The open, western societies took an empiricist approach, testing their way ahead. The art of social engineering advanced in a democratic environment of critical arguing and of matter-of-fact discussion. The Swedish model of welfare was the most advanced example in this respect.
Marxism, as attacked by Popper, Rostow, and other adversaries was a body of thought, severely deformed by eurocentrism, economical determinism and deification of rationality. This picture certainly was not altogether an invention of an evil mind. It had a real existence as a social pattern of thought in the state ideologies of Soviet union and other eastern European countries. The eastern side of the Cold War was governed by the same conceptual framework as the liberal capitalist one: how to optimise the development of a social ”rationality”. This rationality had not anything to do with the liberation of the working class from the capitalist division of labour. On the contrary – it was uniformly defined for all industrial societies. It was declared by Hungarian economists that extraction of profit and surplus production was the aim of all rational economic behaviour. On the micro level capitalism was characterised by such a rationality – on the macro level, however, it was haunted by crises, commercial wars and political conflict. Socialism had solved these conflicts, but had ignored the demand for rationality on the micro level. A synthesis had to be found: more planning and inter-state co-operation in the west, more market economy and efficacy in the east:
”In the future not only the planning methods as applied at the macro-economic level may be compared, but also the decisions of economic policy taken under consideration of commodity and money relations, as well as the methods of directing and managing large enterprises.”(8)
According to the eastern ideologists the political order of the East was superior, because it could increase the rate of accumulation without having to consider short-sighted popular inclinations. Their western colleagues stressed the superiority of political democracy in selecting leaders, in counteracting oppression from the state power and in preventing bureaucratisation. These were the two positions of the Cold War. During the 60-ies and 70-ies the popular movements of Europe refused to take part in it. They questioned both positions, refusing to recognise the rationality of an order of production the optimal administration of which both sides claimed to exercise.
Popper by no means rejected irrational thought altogether. In many fields he was stressing the importance of emotions. In their political life, however, people had to choose rationalism. Irrationalist doctrine invariably, by its stressing of emotion and passion, led to violence. Whenever constructive passions like love and dedication to common aims failed to solve conflicts of opinion hatred, fear and envy invariably was to take their place.
Might you not, however, ascribe the same defects to rationalism? What would happen if during the process of rational argument insurmountable contradictions were discovered?
According to Popperïs conception this could not possibly happen, because the precondition of rationalism was a fundamental absence of such contradictions. If you really applied rational thought you would treat all individuals as equals. Certainly, even between equals different subjective opinions might exist. However, no incompatible objective interests might exist between equals. Although in practise inequalities might exist, in social life we had to postulate equality. This was ”not a fact, but a political demand based upon a moral decision”. Democracy presupposed a ”rational unity of mankind”. If you started to presume the existence of collective antagonistic interests behind the arguments of individuals society would start to disintegrate into friends and enemies. Democracy would be torn apart. That is why democracy had to defend itself against collectivism.(9)
Among the irrationalisms to be contained were thinking in terms of classes and the ”nationalism of the tribe”. The two were related to each other, according to Popper. In order to save the marxian prophecy of increasing pauperisation the communists had decided to ”instigate colonial unrest” .(10)
Professor Rostow feared that the process of economic maturation in former colonial areas would develop into a ”reactive nationalism”. The Russians ought to ”accept that their only rational destiny is ti join the great mature powers of the North in a common effort” to ensure that this development would not ”wrack the world”.(11)
The Soviet leaders agreed with Rostow in this. Khrushchev maintained that the national liberation movements had to calm down in order not to provoke a disastrous nuclear war. This was one of the main issues in his conflict with the Chinese communists at the beginning of the 60-ies.
The self-acclaimed universal reason of the cold war was more than a scientific method and an intellectual position. It was the power of Capital and an imperialist world order disguised as an Utopia. Any effort from the working class or from the oppressed peoples collectively to organise a development apart from the proclaimed main road of capitalist modernisation was considered as a reflex of old-time irrationalism.
Thatïs how scholars and executives argued on the developed countries in a study of the foreign policy of the US in 1955. The inclination towards nationalism among poor nations was a consequence of ”the revolution of increasing expectations”. This mentality above all had brought the inhabitants of the big cities in a state of frustration, making them susceptible to irrational manners of thought:
”Both irrational nationalism and communism provide these rootless urban groups with convenient scapegoats against whom they can manifest their resentments, and with visions of an utopian age whose coming awaits only the expulsion of westerners and western influence.”
The popperian social engineers looked around and irrationalism seemed to engulf them wherever they looked:
”The moral duty to respect the freedom and self-determination of these other societies is real and genuinely felt in the West… But, it does not require the West to surrender its own security and its truly vital economic interests in the name of a self-determination which insists upon expressing itself exclusively in a national form.”(12)
Rationalism was not allowed to yield to a moral, fundamentally irrational emotion. Military intervention could not be forsaken.
The Popperian rational creed entailed a worship of bourgeois liberal democracy. In the collective values of bourgeois democracy competing ideologies would dissolve, different opinions be adjusted and society develop by piecemeal social engineering. The organic associations of traditional society (i e families, estates, guilds and tribes) finally would give way to individualism and to the abstract, formal relationships of modern, open society.
”We could conceive of a society in which men practically never meet face to face – in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and which go about in closed motor cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.) Such a fictious society might be called a ‘completely abstract de-personalised society'”.
In important respects modern society approached this vision, Popper declared. The logic of commodity exchange or other abstract relationships was not to be evaded. Popper looked forward to the advent of this new realm. He foresaw that new personal relationships would develop in a free pattern. He detested people who mourned pre-modern society and regressed into irrational, holistic manners of thought, characteristic of the closed society. He rejected the ”dogmatic” interest of Durkheim and other sociologists in social groups and communities in favour of the equations of supply and demand of modern economics.(13)
In abstract society politics was to achieve a perfectly rational character. No superstitious ideologies would compete – just different technologies for the management of the social machinery. In 1945 as later on the US was the model. After the collapse of the Soviet empire his Utopia would be extended across the globe:
”It is now possible everywhere to establish a two-party system with maximum competition among the parties for higher effiency and honesty. A division of the political landscape in leftist and rightist parties is neither relevant nor desirable today. The parties should simply start to compete among themselves on the basis of competence in the management and governance”.(14)
The optimism of Popper got its nourishment from the casino economy of the rich world during the 80-ies as well as from the ending of the Cold War. However, the creed in a Rational Order is no longer self-sustaining. The leaders of the West have to watch how their electorates dwindle out of disgust and fatigue, confronted with a political life becoming extremely uniform during the crisis. Opinion polls in the East report that people feel gradually more alienated from a liberalism, once promising freedom and welfare – now offering depression and mass unemployment. The common values that once, after the second World War, tended to stabilise society do not seem to do the trick any more.
Even during the hey-days of social engineering there was a doubt as to the ability of formal equality and rationality to bridge the internal contradictions of capitalism. During the 30-ies already , within the framework of working site sociology, there developed a criticism of the claims of industrial management. After the war, in cultural and academic circles there were streaks of pessimism as to the future of western civilisation .
The political practise of the nascent capitalist welfare societies was hard to reconcile with Popperïs utopian conception of the rule of critical reason by means of a public exchange of opinions between equal citizens. The West-German philosopher Jrgen Habermas rejected the liberal fiction in 1962 already, in his study ”Brgerliche Öffentlichkeit” . In fact, he maintained, the public debate had become a theatre of manipulation of the public opinion by organised interests, political parties, corporate and public administrative bodies. Democracy tended to be manipulative: plebiscitary consent was substituted for the rule of the people. The decay of democracy might, however, be countervailed by means of a democratic process on a lower level. An active public opinion might be established by means of rational argument and discussion within the competing organisations, and this opinion would again permit the public interest to prevail.
The vision of Habermas was but a corporativist variety of the Popperian utopia. In Sweden it corresponded to the political philosophy of class reconciliation developed by Axel Hägerström during the 20-ies and 30-ies. The philosophy of Axel Hägerström fought a dual-front battle: on one hand he attacked the superstitious state ideology dominating the ruling caste of civil servants and the reactionary bourgeoisie. On the other hand he defended the reconciliation of social democracy with the nascent liberal bourgeoisie. He prescribed a working class movement, liberated from the ”agitatory religion” of fair distribution. Out of a recognition of reality, ”especially political economy and general principles of social psychology”, reconciliation and co-operation would develop.(15) His followers hailed the common good, supposedly standing above the conflicting interests. This was to become the motto of the rulers of the Swedish Model.
The ideology of common good, like Popperïs creation, was disturbed by class contradiction. ”Any antagonism of interests, with an inherent structural insolvability”, would seriously hamper the construction of a critical publicity, Habermas declared. When organised interests are incompatible they may not be harmonised in a rational manner. The public arena turns into a theatre of manipulation and strife for power. Class antagonism therefore must be mitigated some way or another. Habermas saw two ways to achieve this aim: either the worship of the material affluence achieved by means of modern technology – or the fear of the potential destructive powers of the very same technology. The social gap might be bridged by a common urge to build an ”affluent society” or by a common fear of nuclear destruction.(16)
On one hand these expectations of Habermasï were founded on current conceptions of a ”mature” industrial society. On the other they foreboded how the revolts , during the late 60-ies, against capitalist development were to be countered. The conceptual coexistence of deification and denomination of technology is very typical of modern thought. During the prolonged economical boom after the second World War technological optimism predominated, but the popular revolts during the 60-ies and 70-ies reduced the attraction of the myths of capitalist modernisation. Public conscience shifted from step one to step two of the Habermasian scheme – however, much to the vexation of the creator of the scheme, it did not remain within its boundaries. The ideologists of our societies left the field of common understanding and welfare altogether. Distrust for technology joined with a large scale escape from rationalism and progress. The social engineer once again went into the focus of the public debate – this time not as a saviour or a hero but as the origin of all the evils the upper class people had to endure for decades of class compromise and construction of welfare for broader sections of the people.
Cultural pessimism, which had been hiding out among circles of ivory tower intellectuals and artists for years, during the 80-ies reappeared to gain momentum in the public opinion and to retain the integrity of society in a period of mass unemployment and liquidation of welfare institutions. Now the Popper of the fifties in one blow became very out of fashion. Holistic superstition put its fangs into his works; former comrades-in-arms, like Daniel Bell, turned to religion as a salvation from the class war. If liberals nowadays publish Popperïs works in a mass scale they do it not with the intention to enter into a new round of state welfare capitalism – but to withdraw from it. They talk of social engineering as an obsolete totalitarian utopia. They put on Hayekïs spectacles before reading Popper.
Today, when refuting Marxism, they no longer blame it for being obsolete and irrationalist. They talk about the inherent evil of science and reason as such. From this observation you may judge the development of bourgeois thought.


1. Dagens Nyheter (DN) 930228

2. DN 470821
3. Tingsten, H. Den svenska socialdemokratins ideutveckling part 2, p 366
4. Popper, K. The Open Society and its Enemies, II, p 97, 264f, The Poverty of Historicism, p 141
5. The Open society… II, p 117, p 121f, 125f,140
6. Rostow; The Stages of Economic Growth
7. Ibidem p 191
8. Integration in the World Economy. East-West and Inter State relations, p 218 f, 246
9. The Open Society…. p 225,234ff, 246.
10. Ibidem p 191
11. Rostow, p 134
12. The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy. Its Concepts, Strategy and Limits. Report of a Study Group Sponsored by the Woordow Wilson Foundation anmd the National Planning Association, firts published in 1955, new edition 1968 p 169, 224
13. The Open Society… p 173ff
14. DN 930228
15. Hägerström, A. Socialfilosofiska uppsatser (Essays on Social Philosophy), p 108f
16. Habermas, Ibidem p 298f

Mikael Nyberg, Liberation, India, 1995

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