Swans Commentary » swans.com October 10, 2011  



The Invisible Planners
Part II of II


by Michael Barker





[ed. Read Part I.]


(Swans - October 10, 2011)   In the early 1920s, Herbert Hoover -- who served as secretary of commerce (1921-28) before becoming president of the United States -- was the single individual who "contributed the most to the setting of its ideological and organizational limits" of the evolving countercyclical machinery that aimed to maintain macroeconomic stability in the United States. But Alchon adds that other significant factors that promoted such changes included Wesley Mitchell's "agenda for the advance of social science" (as seen through the activities of the National Bureau), and the "increasing willingness of the major foundations to support the development of social science and its application to public policy." (1)

Foundations played a vital role in actualizing Hoover and Mitchell's technocratic visions, and although Hoover "was opposed to outright federal control or direction of economic activity," fulfilling his plans would still "require unprecedented activism within a sharply delimited portion of the public sector." In this way, the "government's job was that of energizing, sponsoring, and informing an unfolding historical process, one whose eventual maturation would theoretically make governmental action obsolete." (2) As noted earlier, the Commonwealth Fund and the Carnegie Corporation played a key role in launching the National Bureau, and:

In subsequent initiatives, the Commonwealth Fund would continue to play an important part, but its influence, as well as that of the [Russell] Sage Foundation, was soon surpassed as a result of new leadership and a concomitant reorientation within the older and larger Rockefeller and Carnegie philanthropies. This reorientation was led by a number of men, among them Henry S. Pritchett and Frederick P. Keppel, but it was Beardsley Ruml's rise as a wizard of technocratic philanthropy, first at the Carnegie Corporation and-then as head of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, that-did the most to make philanthropy a critical source of support for the development of social science and technocratic authority. (p.75)

But such philanthropic aid for "empiricism and... careful data-building," combined with the increasing specialization within the social sciences, was "also having disintegrative and fragmentizing effects." To counter these trends, in 1923, the major foundations formed the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which "represented the latest step in the extension and consolidation of technocratic authority." (3)

The SSRC was the brainchild of University of Chicago political scientist Charles E. Merriam. But also joining him as its leading lights were Wesley Mitchell and Beardsley Ruml, the latter functioning now as the director of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, an agency that between 1923 and 1930 would spend over $40 million to subsidize social science research. Like Merriam and Mitchell, Ruml was interested in both science-building and synthesis. (p.116)

Alchon highlights the fact that of all the foundations involved in directing the development of the social sciences, it was the Rockefeller Memorial that contributed the most. And between 1918 and 1930 it supported all manner of agencies including the SSRC, the National Bureau, and the Brookings Institution, and were "responsible for much of the nearly forty fold increase in philanthropic support of social science during this period," with Ruml, more than any other single individual, assuming the most significant position in overseeing these momentous changes. (4)

Funding bodies like the National Research Council and the SSRC effectively served as front-groups for foundations like the Rockefeller Memorial, allowing the foundations to remain...

... insulated from specific researches. This would protect the foundation from political controversy, particularly that aroused by the "outcome of any specific piece of research" -- a touchy matter with Rockefeller philanthropies because of the "abuse and vituperation" heaped on their industrial relations investigation following the Ludlow Massacre. Such insulation would encourage perceptions of philanthropy's "disinterestedness," thus protecting it from political criticism and accountability at a time when it was in reality expanding its political function. (pp.121-2)

Yet while Hoover and the foundations' efforts to build a technocorporatist managerial class were largely successful, the "collapse of New Era prosperity from 1929 through 1932" -- which coincided with Hoover's rise to presidency -- "shattered the expectations and contradicted the assumptions" of their efforts to stabilize the economy. (5)

This failure was evident in the increasingly uncomfortable relationship between Hoover and the Carnegie Corporation during that period, but was presaged by the Russell Sage Foundation's very own Mary Van Kleeck, who in 1927 had broken with the Hooverian technocratic consensus that she had "played a central role" in developing. (6) In 1932, the Carnegie Corporation withdrew its support for Hoover's Committee on Recent Economic Changes (which had been established in 1927), and although the Committee "fared somewhat better" with the Rockefeller philanthropies, it eventually "dissolved under the weight of the depression." On the other hand, the philanthropic community continued supporting the National Bureau, whose own activities were intimately wedded to the work of the Committee on Recent Economic Changes, and in 1933 "it won from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation pledges of renewed and continuous support." "In the case of the Carnegie Corporation," Alchon adds, "it would seem that Hoover's banishment from the political scene [in March 1933] must have been a helpful if not a decisive factor." (7) Indeed:

The National Bureau would continue taking on new research commitments. Its central figure, Wesley Mitchell, would play an important role in New Deal planning activities and would continue to promote and defend data-building as necessary to social science. (p.167)

One of the most famous critics of the technocratic management of this era was Robert Lynd, whose "rhetorical reply to Wesley Mitchell's vision -- 'Knowledge for What?' -- signaled an increasing disillusionment with the idea that intensive data-building unaccompanied by the potent direction of explicitly normative hypotheses was of much use either to society or to social science." But strangely, critics like Lynd "gave no indication of having understood that the ideas behind social science are not politically neutral, that they are instead a part of a depoliticizing and antidemocratic technology." (8) This meant that:

While calling for the propagation and survival of a critical impulse within American social science, [Lynd] assumed, as had Mitchell and Van Kleeck, that researchers operating within a "going system" could change matters through developing and equipping policy makers with a science of social reconstruction. As Lynd saw it, for example, "there is no way in which our culture can grow in continual serviceability to its people without a clear and pervasive extension of planning and control." Social science, he concluded, must help "to discover where and how" such planning would "facilitate the human ends of living." (pp.168-9)

Thus after the turn to statist policies during the 1930s, it should come as no surprise that "corporatist models and rhetoric would surface once again" after the end of World War II -- initially in the "thinking and influence" of the Committee for Economic Development, then "in the elaboration of postwar philanthropic planning activities (in conjunction with an expanded federal role)," and in the 1970s, with the development of neoliberalism. (9) But as this article has demonstrated, while it is clear that the more far-sighted elites have been quick to devise all manner of means to exploit humanity, workers themselves have been just as creative in their struggles "to try to take control of one or another aspect of the labor process." Indeed, writing in the late 1970s, labor sociologist Dan Clawson found that:

Instead of the dominant left view, which tends to see capitalists as the only historically active class, with workers reacting to capital's offensives, it is more reasonable to see workers as an equally active force: capitalists have to work hard to find ways to stay on top. Much of the management literature of the late nineteenth century (or of the last quarter of the twentieth) has an air of incredulity, occasionally of near hysteria: "How can they do such a thing? No matter how much you give them they always try to take more." (10)


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1.  Guy Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning: Capitalism, Social Science, and the State in the 1920s (Princeton University Press, 1985), p.72. Alchon observes that "Hoover's war relief activities had brought him into close contact with the major New York foundations, yielding a recognition of their ability to provide more than just financial sustenance." (p.73) As Susan George points out in How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (Penguin, 1976), Hoover worked with allied "relief" agencies during and after World War I and was the "first modern politician to look upon food as a frequently more effective means of getting one's own way than gunboat diplomacy or military intervention." (p.193)

Once assuming office in 1921, Hoover reconvened the recently lapsed Advisory Committee on the Census, and "brought Wesley Mitchell, Edwin Gay, and Allyn Young into active consultation with interested industry leaders. This was followed, in July 1921, by the launching of the Survey of Current Business, a monthly compendium of production, inventory, and sales data supplied by cooperating trade associations. Its inauguration marked the beginning of a new era in the production of federal economic statistics." With his concern for addressing the unemployment problem, Hoover dominated the Unemployment Conference "by determining in advance the conference's conclusions and recommendations, by carefully selecting the participants, and by demanding their unanimous asset to his program. To this end he formed, on September 21, an Economic Advisory Committee that was composed, for the most part, of AALL [American Association for Labor Legislation], Taylor Society, and NBER representatives. Included were John B. Andrews, George E. Barnett, Henry Dennison, Edwin Gay, Sam Lewisohn, Otto Mallery, Samuel McCune Lindsay, Wesley Mitchell, and Leo Wolman, all of whom shared with Hoover a basic faith in the social virtues of technocratic analysis and prescription." Hoover subsequently created a number of subcommittees to implement the Employment Conferences recommendations, one of which was the Committee on Unemployment and the Business Cycle, which worked in alliance with the National Bureau to undertake the committee's investigations, which were funded to the tune of $50,000 by the Carnegie Corporation. Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.77, pp.79-83, p.85.  (back)

2.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.73, p.74.  (back)

3.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.114, p.116. "In theory," the SSRC "would do for the social sciences what the National Research Council had done for the physical sciences..." (p.116) It is interesting to note that: "Formally represented within the National Research Council since its inception, psychologists had linked themselves to the war effort through more than a dozen committees of the American Psychological Association, each one functioning in an area of specialization applicable to military needs." Key players such as Robert M. Yerkes, Walter Dill Scott, and Beardsley Ruml then "organized the Army's mammoth intelligence testing operations, setting significant precedents for the wide use of such devices by corporate managers after the war." Indeed, "the fusion of psychological testing and business needs would spawn the new science of personnel management." Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.42, p.43.  (back)

4.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.117, p.118. "A psychometrician by training, Ruml had been among the technocratic elect during the war, and he now shared with Mitchell, Merriam, Van Kleeck, and others a commitment to technocratic science-building... Ruml had already helped to secure Carnegie Corporation support for the National Bureau; and as assistant to Carnegie's president, James R. Angell, he had impressed Abraham Flexner of the Rockefeller Foundation's General Education Board. When Angell left the Carnegie Corporation to become president of Yale, Flexner brought Ruml to work for the Rockefellers, and in 1922, at the age of twenty-six, he became director of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial." (p.118) For further details on Ruml's career, see Patrick Reagan, Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943 (MIT Press, 2000).  (back)

5.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.152.  (back)

6.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.131. Mary Van Kleeck's involvement in such philanthropic endeavors was longstanding and in 1910 she had been recruited to head the Russell Sage Foundation's Committee on Women's Work. Two years later, the Committee expanded its operations to create the Division of Industrial Studies (later renamed Department of Industrial Studies), at which Van Kleeck served as director of for over forty years. In 1928, Van Kleeck also became an associate director of the International Industrial Relations Institute, a position she held until 1948; during which time she served for five years as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (1935-40).

With regard to Van Kleeck's pioneering efforts to institutionalize technocratic management, Alchon observes, that "By the fall of 1919 she had already helped launch a series of investigations into contemporary experiments in organizing employer-worker relations. And in a remarkable memorandum, prepared in October for the Russell Sage Foundation, she called for a rededication of the joint efforts of philanthropy and social work to the task of creating an industrial sociology that would be capable of informing and guiding managerial decisions." (p.47) For further information, see "The Russell Sage Foundation and the Manufacture of Reform"; and Guy Alchon, "Mary Van Kleeck and Scientific Management," (pdf) In: Daniel Nelson (ed.), A Mental Revolution: Scientific Management Since Taylor (Ohio State University Press, 1992).  (back)

7.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.157, p.165, p.165. In his footnotes, Alchon writes: "Critical assessments of philanthropy's modern function can be found in E. Richard Brown, Rockefeller Medicine Men: Medicine and Capitalism in America (Berkeley, 1979); and R. Arnove, ed., Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism (Boston, 1980)." (p.178)  (back)

8.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.168, p.169.  (back)

9.  Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning, p.170.  (back)

10.  Dan Clawson, Bureaucracy and the Labor Process: The Transformation of U.S. Industry, 1860-1920 (Monthly Review Press, 1980), p.266.  (back)


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Published October 10, 2011