Walden Pond versus the megamachine
The American Interest , November-December 2006
They called him the most distinguished public intellectual of his time. Malcolm Cowley said he was “the last of the great humanists”, while Leo Marx claimed “it’s hard to think of another 20th-century American, in or out of the academy, who has written as many books regarded by academic experts as signal contributions to as many scholarly fields. Except for Edmund Wilson . . . not one comes to mind.”
Though his works were often repetitive they were good enough to win the National Book Award in 1961, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the National Medal for Literature in 1972, the Smithsonian’s Hodgkins Gold Medal and the National Medal of the Arts in 1986. In 1975 the Queen made him an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire; he got the Prix Mondial del Duca in Paris in 1976 for lifetime contributions to letters; in Italy, after calling on Bernard Berenson, he was taken up by the Olivetti family and given a lavish reception at a handsome Roman villa, where 200 of Italy ‘s most famous writers, architects and painters were gathered.
For fifty years Lewis Mumford inveighed against capitalism, militarism, technology, our ungovernable appetite for energy and our deplorable weakness for highways and cars, predicting environmental disaster if Western economic growth and America ‘s thirst for petroleum were not brought under control. Middle Eastern wars and global warming seem to fulfil his darkest prophecies.
Yet who reads Mumford now? His incoherent politics might be one reason—endorsing Emerson’s radical individualism in one place and Henry Bellamy’s “basic communism” in another. But here I’m concerned with something else: the role of aesthetes in public affairs. Does American democracy have no place for cultural mandarins any more?
Concord and Walden Pond
Born in 1895 in New York , Lewis Mumford was the illegitimate issue of a brief liaison between his 30-year-old Protestant German-American mother and a young man in the Jewish household where she worked. His surname had been acquired by his mother a dozen years before during a short marriage to a man twice her age, Jack Mumford. About six months after their wedding, Elvina Conrida Mumford’s first and only husband seems to have got into some sort of “book-keeping trouble” and fled to Canada . The marriage was then annulled.
Lewis Mumford never met either the man from whom he took his second name—and whose only other legacy was a cheap edition of Dickens—or his much younger biological father, Lewis Mack. An Irish nurse provided whatever stability the household had. Mumford was kept in the dark about the whole parental story for many years, and though he vaguely understood that he was both illegitimate and half-Jewish, his mother raised a barrier against further inquiry. Only in 1942, when he was 47 years old, did she finally tell him the facts. According to his biographer, Mumford smilingly embraced her and said she shouldn’t worry, since both Leonardo da Vinci and Erasmus were also illegitimate.
As a student at New York ‘s Stuyvesant High School , young Lewis boyishly played around with science, and at 15 had an article accepted by Modern Electrics . But when he flunked basic algebra and found English was his best subject the matter was settled: He would be a writer—specifically a playwright and man of letters. It might be a bit much to see failing algebra as a crucial turning point, but his lifelong hostility to mathematics and quantification did start early.
Growing up on Manhattan during the years of the First World War Mumford tried on different American identities. Nearest to hand was Walt Whitman, a poet who had already sung the city of New York . But there was an exuberance about Whitman that wasn’t quite what he wanted. Thoreau was better: withdrawn, self-contained and defiant, better with trees than people, the kind of man an unprepossessing acne-scarred youth could warm to. But it was Emerson who most appealed—austere, towering, exemplary. “Emerson was a sort of living essence”, Mumford wrote in his 1926 survey of American literature, The Golden Day : “The preacher, the farmer, the scholar, the sturdy New England freeholder, yes, and the shrewd Yankee peddler or mechanic, were all encompassed by him; but what they meant in actual life had fallen away from him: he represented what they stood for in eternity.”
Emerson became Mumford’s lifelong idol: Mumford’s wife recalled having to listen to regular readings from the Journals: “I used to live with Emerson”, she said. “It was Emerson, Lewis, and me.”
Emerson liked walking and so did Mumford. In 1916 he strode all over Manhattan —“East Side, West Side , north and south.” Biographer Donald L. Miller tells us how the New York neighborhoods he visited were observed, sketched, rated, while any that didn’t measure up got marked down for potential demolition. In New York ‘s Jewish quarter “he encountered foul-smelling, clotted tenements he would later compare to those of Juvenal’s Rome .” All along the East Side, Mumford noted, “there was not a block after leaving Madison Avenue that was not dingy, grimy, dull and hopeless.”
Funny thing was, the inhabitants of these dull and hopeless blocks were enjoying a bright and hopeful existence. When he stopped to think about it, it was plain to Mumford that such a vital culture should be preserved, though to do this in accord with the latest principles he’d acquired at City College everything would have to be scrubbed and relocated first. A kind of Jewish Garden City formed in his mind—a Greek agora with a temple at one end, “an adjacent refreshment place, and many protected stalls” nearby, with “plenty of elbow room for gesticulation.”
Now there’s nothing wrong with a Jewish Garden City—quite the opposite. But did Mumford ask these lively gesticulating people if they wanted one? Did he talk to them at all? Like a Victorian traveller in Africa, the peripatetic visitor from the Upper West Side found the natives useful for stimulating moral reflections, pictorial fancies, and expansive civilizing plans, but conversation wasn’t part of the deal.
The contrast between his zeal for fixing New York City and his ignorance of its citizens exposed a persisting mental tendency. It was as noticeable in 1916, applied to life on the Lower East Side, as it was in the case of the International Garden City he proposed for the United Nations thirty years later, when he advised that 3,000 acres of Manhattan be forcefully requisitioned, screened by belts of grass and trees from the corruptions of commerce, and made into a leafy home for the benign world government to come.
Town planning as aesthetics
Lewis Mumford’s first book was his 1922 The Story of Utopias, a journalistic survey ranging from Plato to William Morris. Sympathetic judges say it showed commendable detachment and neither endorsed nor dismissed the utopian project as a whole. Yet the message Mumford distilled from Plato’s Republic went further than this. Here was a utopia that “pictured a community living a sane, continent, athletic, clear-eyed life; a community that would be always, so to say, within bounds”—and would be implicitly autarkic, too. It was a model he thought should be widely followed.
Mumford knew by the age of twenty that he really belonged in another time and place, writing that 6th-century B.C. Athens “would have been more to my liking than New York in the twentieth century after Christ.” And if ancient Greece would suit him better, why shouldn’t it suit the rest of New York ? Why not Athens on Hudson ? Parnassus on Palisades ?
To remake and reconstitute the garment district as a Garden City would be a good start—but in town planning one thing leads to another. New York was only a small part of the Hudson Valley . If the city were to be set to rights, there had to be a unified plan from the Adirondacks to the sea. In an essay on the “regional vision” John L. Thomas tells us that soon after discussing Plato’s polis, Mumford made the following comparison:
It is a mountainous region, this Greece , and within a short distance from mountain top to sea there was compressed as many different kinds of agricultural life as one could single out in going down the Hudson Valley from the Adirondack Mountains to New York Harbor . As the basis of his ideal city, whether Plato knew it or not, he had an ‘ideal’ section of land in his mind—what the geographer calls the ‘valley section.’
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“The geographer” was a Scot named Patrick Geddes whose writings Mumford discovered at City College . Mumford swallowed whole Geddes’ ideas on regional and city planning. What exactly Geddes meant by a “valley section” need not concern us, except to note that it implied having a place for everything and putting everything in its place over hundreds of square miles and millions of acres.
Only a humorless Scot—or perhaps a drunken Russian—could have come up such a dirigiste fantasy, the political and economic ramifications of which hardly bear serious reflection. But each of these men—Mumford, Geddes and Mumford’s close friend, the Appalachian-trailing conservationist Benton MacKaye—had overriding moral and aesthetic concerns. If you got the right colors and shapes in the right places, according to a socialist scale that set firm bounds and limits, then politics (and funding) would look after themselves. What was needed was a high lookout from which a city could be seen with every building and district displayed. After that a planner could decide who and what went where.
Geddes got his view of Edinburgh from the Outlook Tower , a still-visited pseudo-medieval structure built on a high point near Edinburgh Castle , with a camera obscura at the top. For those unacquainted with this device, it projects a 360-degree synoptic image of one’s surroundings onto a table in a darkened room. Suddenly a confusion of human dwellings and workplaces forms a picture to delight the artist’s eye: not homes, just patches of color; not factories, just rectangular forms to be more suitably disposed.
MacKaye’s equivalent of the Outlook Tower in New England was a 542-foot rocky outcrop called Hunting Hill just west of Boston . From here he could see the tributaries of the Nashua River running through country familiar to Thoreau, while to the north “lay the Whitman River , along its banks the railroad bringing lumber and staples east to Boston and carrying manufactures back to the Berkshires and beyond.” Describing his own education, MacKaye said: “I graduated from Longley’s barnyard in 1893 and from Harvard in 1900”—Melvin Longley being the dairyman next door.
Mumford’s own version of the Outlook Tower was on the Palisades on the west side of the Hudson . One of the sketches collected in the Lewis Mumford Papers in the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania bears the title in his own hand, “ Manhattan from top of Palisades .” Made during a walking tour in the area, the city in the sketch consists of an irregular horizon of forms and makes up only about 10 percent of the total composition, the rest consisting of river, trees and grass. There are, of course, no people to be seen.
Romantic transfigurations: the rural scene
Mumford followed The Story of Utopias in 1924 with a historical study of American architecture, Sticks and Stones . Many titles of swelling portentousness would follow: Technics and Civilization , The Culture of Cities , The Condition of Man and The Conduct of Life , to name but four. Along with Oswald Spengler’s 1926 The Decline of the West , they prophesied the technological nemesis of Western Man. All of them turgidly elaborated a handful of simple ideas, the first of which was that small is beautiful, and big must therefore justify itself.
The second held that rural arcadia is man’s natural environment: although cities bring forth man’s highest powers, metropolis is often inimical to the human spirit. The third idea was that whatever is “organic” is always and everywhere superior to “the machine”—the latter being a metaphor for all technology since time immemorial. The conclusions he drew were that science is out of control; growth must be stopped; unregulated development must be banned; the reckless consumption of finite resources must end; the ideal state is a stationary state; and planning must be imposed as widely as possible.
To justify this critique Mumford looked back into history. If utopias were to serve as a measure and a guide, they should be combined with what he called a “usable past.” But how could one tell the usable past from the unusable? Despite Mumford’s seemingly encyclopaedic reading and his deep immersion in Thoreau, when he rhapsodised about medievalism or about 17th-century New England towns and farms, what practical understanding of rural life did he actually have?
True, for 36 years Mumford divided his time between Manhattan and the slow-moving upstate hamlet of Leedsville, where he occupied what is called a farmhouse. This was not a working farm where a working farmer and his family made a living off the land. It was a congenial rural retreat for an urban intellectual—the sort of house that comes onto the market when working farmers go broke or die. True, too, his biographer Miller tells us,
As a young boy, from the time he was eight years old to when he was thirteen, he would spend part of the summer on a farm near Bethel , Vermont . . . . It was a world such as Henry David Thoreau had known, rustic but not wilderness, with farms and fields and streams and woods . . . a world Mumford would reference in his book on the art and life of Thoreau’s time, The Golden Day . There young Lewis learnt how to hunt woodchucks and squirrels, and “gained his first glimpse of a simpler, more deeply satisfying life than he found in the world of his New York relatives.
Perhaps so. But did he actually see any work being done? “When he wasn’t reading, hunting, fishing, or walking around the farm”, writes Miller, “Lewis would spend hours lying in a hammock, suspended between two maples in front of the house, listening to the rustling of the leaves above him.” There was also, as it happened, a 300-book library in the house. What I myself remember of life on the farm (and I spent rather more of my boyhood in the country than Mumford did) is the screaming of pigs being slaughtered and a farmhand falling off a haystack and breaking his neck. What Mumford remembered was lying in a hammock cradling Ruskin’s Modern Painters in his arms.
Romantic transfigurations: medievalism
The contrast between dream and reality is just as striking in Mumford’s enthusiasm for the medieval world. This enthusiasm makes an early appearance in his survey of American architecture, Sticks and Stones , where the reader learns that the noblest American residential building was the “medieval” tradition found in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the 17th century. By no means coincidentally, communalism is seen as inseparable from the aesthetic effect: “The charm of an old New England house”—a charm reflected also in the uniform styles of farmhouse, mill and meeting house—“was the outcome of a common spirit, nourished by men who had divided the land fairly and who shared adversity and good fortune together.” He added: “Would it be an exaggeration to say that there has never been a more complete and intelligent partnership between the earth and man than existed, for a little while, in the old New England village?”
Apparently not—the only thing to compare with the old New England village was the even older medieval European town where, according to The Culture of Cities , the entire social order was an enormous collective source of well-being. One didn’t have to sit at a desk or bully customers or sordidly wheel and deal: “Economic life was devoted to the glorification of God . . . and to the construction of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, hospitals, schools.” And the key to well-being was this: “Business and religion were in an organic relationship.” So there was no conflict between values and work. Organic relationships are best—and we are told there was also a healthy “organic” relationship between religion and the life of the mind. This flourished in the cloister, where medieval life was (somehow) constantly in blissful retreat: “One withdrew at night: one withdrew on Sundays and on fast days: so long as the medieval complex was intact, a constant stream of disillusioned worldly men turned from the market place and the battlefield to seek the quiet contemplative round of the monastery.”
Organic relations are good, but the overriding value is really aesthetic—in other words, how everything looks . In Sticks and Stones Mumford praised the John Ward House in Salem for purely external visual qualities. Every step one takes nearer the house “alters the relation of the planes formed by the gable ends . . . so the building seems in motion, as well as the spectator; and this quality delights the eye quite as much as formal decoration.” Writing in The Culture of Cities about the medieval German town of Dinkelsbühl , he finds the same thing:
Blocked vista and irregular, upward pointing silhouette: gabled roof, tower, and spire worked in aesthetic harmony. The tracery of ironwork in the standard and shield of the foreground was a fine feature of civic art, especially notable in South Germany .
Rothenburg-an-der-Tauber: another typical profile, irregular but harmonious, following the contour of the land, with the more significant buildings thrusting against the sky. Organic planning and building, not for show but for defense, civic association, the expression of common values.
Were the residents of ancient Dinkelsbühl happy in their blocked vista with its irregular, upward-pointing silhouette? Were the citizens of Rothenburg-an-der-Tauber content with their buildings “thrusting against the sky?” Never mind blocked vistas—what about blocked drains? Throughout his life Mumford was extraordinarily reluctant to see the obvious connection between the continual expansion of science and technology that he feared and routinely denounced, and the practical interests and needs that drove this expansion all the way from the privations of the 11 th century to the amenities we enjoy today.
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Despite occasional throwaway lines about the Black Death—“which sometimes killed off half the population of a town, but caused only a temporary recession”—Mumford’s feudal Europe was a world without lice, rats, plague, lepers, violence and insecurity, without crippling superstitions and hideous punishments, without crop failures and starvation, without arrogant abbots, brutal lords and brutish serfs. There are no packs of savage dogs (hard to deal with before firearms, and a serious problem around St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at one time), and no fiery conflagrations that might suddenly destroy 600 houses—as happened in London in 1091—because, alas, however pleasingly irregular their gables and silhouettes, they were mere structures of mud and straw.
As book followed book, Mumford’s wishful thinking about the medieval era got increasingly out of control, and the imagined glories of monastic life became an infatuation. By the age of 75 he seemed to have forgotten that at least nine-tenths of humanity—all normal families of men, women and children—were excluded from this celibate world: In one of his last works, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development , the single-sex monastic community is enthusiastically hailed as “an early model of the ‘welfare state’.”
The UN on Manhattan
Mumford’s comments on architecture were widely read and highly regarded. As recently as 1998 the Princeton Architectural Press published Sidewalk Critic , a collection of his New Yorker pieces from the 1930s, in which the anthologist describes him as “the most important architectural critic produced by the United States in the twentieth century.” Turning its pages we find him writing approvingly in 1932 of Frank Lloyd Wright, saying his “organic architecture” was “a matter of relating air, sunlight, space, gardens, outlook, social intercourse, economic activity, in such a fashion as to form a concrete whole.” In 1936 he likes the cork tiles on the kitchen floor of a Corbusier house, though he finds the bathroom window disappointingly small.
It has to be said that Mumford’s New Yorker columns contain much plain common sense, yet his architectural criticism overall left him spread-eagled between principles not easily reconciled—the “organic”; the modern view that “form should follow function”; something he finds in William Morris called “living form”; and along with all of this, the “usable past.” The result is that it’s never clear quite what he likes or why. He damns most historical styles as entirely unusable. Commenting on Corbusier in 1935 he condemns some barrel-vaulted ceilings as “stylistic atavisms” that remind him oddly of “Maine carriage houses of the eighteen-forties”, while in Sticks and Stones any attempt to revive colonial tradition is severely chastised: “What we call a revival is really a second burial.”
Yet elsewhere he finds revivalism legitimate. Because Mumford heartily approves of the English socialist and artist William Morris, The Culture of Cities introduces him as a man “who realized that society itself was the main source of architectural form, and that only in terms of living functions could living form be created.” In Morris’ “Red House” of 1852 “an attempt was made to discard ornamental tags and go back to essentials: honest materials, well-wrought: plain brick walls: a roof of heavy slates: every detail as straightforward and sensible as in a 17th-century English farmhouse.” So for Americans to revive 18th-century colonial architecture is wrong and foolish, but for a British socialist to revive a 17th-century English farmhouse is right and wise.
Archaism was hardly an issue when he came to consider the United Nations buildings—though form and function were. Mumford had been holding forth on this subject for years, in Sticks and Stones , for example, invoking Aristotle: “In the Aristotelian sense, every purpose contains an inherent form; and it is only natural that a factory or lunchroom or grain elevator, intelligently conceived, should become a structure quite different” from rectangular buildings traditionally conceived.
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The doctrine that “form follows function” obviously applies to surfboards; why it should be expected to distinguish the premises of the butcher, the baker or the candlestick-maker is less clear. What architectural form would be appropriate for each? The plain fact is that for most functions, most of the time, 99 percent of humanity needs only four walls and a roof. For more abstract human purposes the doctrine that form follows function is a shaky guide. If, as Mumford assumed, the function of the United Nations complex in New York was to symbolize the “physical renewal of the whole city and the spiritual renewal of the whole world”, at the same time serving as a home for “the preservation of peace and a symbol of enduring harmony”, what form could it possibly take? An amiably sunlit stratospheric cloud?
His own proposals were grandiose, and in hindsight look as if he was already losing touch with reality. To be fair, other proposals were also very ambitious. The responsible UN committee was considering sites as large as forty square miles with the possibility of a “complete community” of 50,000 to be located in either Westchester or Fairfield counties. (Objections from local residents quickly put a stop to that.) But Mumford’s urban proposals were scarcely more modest. “This is no time for small plans or grudging half-measures”, he announced to the Royal Institute of British Architects in July 1946. He argued that an appropriate headquarters should occupy “between 1,000 and 3,000 acres within an existing world metropolis [ultimately New York] created by a large-scale process of slum clearance and replacement”; that the UN “should be a legally independent municipality”; and that it should comprise “a balanced urban community . . . capable of growing up to the point where it would hold a population between twenty-five and fifty thousand people in permanent residence.”
The gross area to be appropriated for this autonomous enclave comprised roughly all of Manhattan from east to west between about 34th Street and Canal. Mumford took pains to underline its essential anti-business ethos: “The city must be cut to the measure of a different kind of man from the powerful, domineering, semi-neurotic types who have left their marks so unmistakably on the great capitals of the past.”
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The eventual site and building, designed by Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer , were of course a bitter disappointment to Mumford. He had argued that in a properly planned arrangement the new “world city” should be set off from “the visual clutter of New York”, and that it should be an inspiring symbol of world government and international cooperation, separated by a cordon sanitaire of trees and grass from midtown and Wall Street, standing in the sharpest possible contrast to the sordid money-grubbing world of capitalist enterprise overall. Lawrence Vale’s sardonic remark put it best: “How it is that a new mini city which turns its collective back upon New York may be construed as an example of world cooperation, Mumford did not say.”
Ethereal hot-air balloons
As he aged, the etherealizing trajectory of Mumford’s writing, moving always from the particular to the abstract, the visible to the invisible, exhortation to cosmic prophecy, grew more pronounced. This can be seen at the level of sentences as well as books. In The City in History he wrote “We must conceive of the city not primarily as a place of business or government but as an essential organ for expressing and actualizing a new personality.” Note the logical structure: Starting from an asserted but unargued imperative, he moves from the bricks and mortar of buildings, through the mystification of “expression” and “actualization”, to the goal of a new collective personality—the idealized psyche of reformed and reconstituted urban man.
Most of his books do the same. The first half of The Culture of Cities is a mine of miscellaneous information. Whether writing about Versailles , St. Petersburg , Bath , Carlsbad or Saratoga Springs , he usually has something interesting to say. But after the inevitable romanticizing of the medieval town, things slip ever more out of focus, and his claims become ever more extravagant. In the last chapter we learn that architecture is symbolic; that it has a peculiar part to play in the modern world—and we are also told rather alarmingly that it is not only “the essential commanding art” but that “the very notion of planning owes more to this art than to any other.”
Much of the rest, however, consists of banality. Between Mumford’s prefaces and his endings, vast regions of time and space are surveyed; a thousand names are dropped; and the mighty Zeppelin comes in to its mooring at last. But his closing peroration always resembles the expiring wheeze of a punctured hot-air balloon. Thus the conclusion to The Condition of Man (1944):
The inner crisis of our civilization must be resolved if the outer crisis is to be effectively met. Our first duty is to revamp our ideas and values and to reorganize the human personality around its highest and most central needs. . . . There is no wealth, as Ruskin said, but life; and there is no consummation of life except in the perpetual growth and renewal of the human person.
Utopia and paranoia
Charlatan or seer? Sage or simpleton? Hayek thought him pretty simple-minded, holding him up as an example of the “synoptic delusion.” Mumford had written in 1937 that we still have to develop “the art of simultaneous thinking: the ability to deal with a multitude of related phenomena at the same time, and of composing, in a single picture, both the qualitative and the quantitative attributes of these phenomena.” This, wrote Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1973), showed “a touching naïveté.” The synoptic delusion is “the fiction that all the relevant economic facts are known to some one mind”—and it enabled the enthusiasts for a deliberately planned society, of which Mumford was one of the more conspicuous, to “disregard all the facts he does not know.” The notion that if enough men practiced “the art of simultaneous thinking”, the problem of economic knowledge could be solved, Hayek thought downright hilarious.
But the direction in which Mumford was moving after World War II was no laughing matter. Utopian thinking suffers from the inevitable abyss between ends and means—in his case between the dream of perfect “organic relationships” and the crooked timber of humanity. Added to this was an economic delusion: For years following the Great Depression, Mumford anticipated a new collapse. As late as 1971 a bibliographic note of his accompanying Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation tells us to expect “the end of the market economy” within a generation.
A man who believed that could believe anything. And if one’s idées fixes include a still wider range of unattainable goals—about universal peace and world government and organic wholeness in human affairs—one is virtually bound to end up cross. Not only will you grow angry, your writing will sound increasingly paranoid as year after year, in book after book, grimly repeated warnings about “the machine” taking over the world, are, to all appearances, totally ignored. How can this be? Is there a conspiracy uniting business, industry, all political parties, the academy, the media, advertising interests, Hollywood, everything from Playboy to the Wall Street Journal —the lot?
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Discussing these matters in The Paranoid Style in American Politics Richard Hofstadter noted that the paranoiac “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.” Hofstadter added:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of a working politician.
Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. The demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.
Much of Hofstadter’s insight fits the mind revealed in Mumford’s two last major books, Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Pentagon of Power (1970), both of them appearing under the joint title of The Myth of the Machine . In the first place, Mumford’s attitudes certainly had little to do with those of a working politician. A “holistic” thinker, he felt deeply that the whole world needed to be changed, but that it was not his business to consider how this might actually be done.
There was something very Germanic about his Spenglerian contempt for parliamentary process, and an interesting aside on this question is supplied by his biographer. Miller says that in his youth Mumford was influenced by the “aristocratic ideal” of his German uncle, James Schleicher, who held that public life should be the preserve “of a right-thinking and knowing minority.” We are told that both Uncle James and his wife hoped their nephew would become a writer, though not one seeking “the approbation of the masses and majorities.” Mumford was faithful to this Nietzschean pair in his own way: Although he found it convenient to speak on behalf of “the people”, he never consulted them, sought their approval, or showed the least interest in their views.
The paranoid style makes much play with invisible processes that have been going on secretly for years and are far more serious than anyone could have imagined. It also points to deliberately concealed motives that the author—lucky for us—has successfully exposed. Mumford steadily insinuates that the “cult” of technology was one such hidden process. Even in the long-ago days of the Sumerians, oracles were revealing “the might of an invisible machine” (Technics and Human Development). By the end of the medieval period, he claims, “a new religion had in fact secretly come into existence: so secretly that its most devout worshippers still do not recognize that it is in fact a religion” (The Pentagon of Power).
Technics and Human Development also includes an illustration of an 18th-century automaton. This enchanting doll-like figure, with velvet jacket, lace cuffs, and knee-length satin trousers, looks exactly like Mozart at a writing desk. But Mumford is not deceived: “Behind this playful automaton was a deeper motive, only now visible: the desire to create life by purely mechanical means—or at least to place every living function under mechanical direction and control.”
Bureaucracy and the megamachine
Mumford’s theory of the “megamachine” combines two ideas. The first concerns social structure. He regards state organization in pharaonic times as a “power system” organized along mechanically hierarchical lines, with each human unit, from slaves to overseers to divine kings, having a specific place and function. The second idea notes that colossal state engineering projects were born in pharaonic times too. Images of pyramidal structures dominate his closing polemics against modernity: The political pyramid, crowned by the divine god-king, and the architectural pyramid, serving as his tomb, become fused in a single metaphor for all that is least desirable and most woefully persistent in our collective life—the “megamachine.”
Thus it is that the political structure of the bureaucratic state and monumental, prestige-generating governmental projects—whether pyramids of stone or voyages to Mars—are historically coeval. In sociological terms, this twin birth was the moral equivalent of the Fall of Man. From the days of the pharaohs all the way to the now-defunct Soviet system on the one hand and American society on the other, it has been downhill all the way.
To see the evolution of large-scale social organization in this light may not be wholly absurd. We speak without embarrassment of “military machines”, although we know perfectly well that this is a metaphoric extension from the world of the metallic, the determined and the unconscious to the organic world of conscious human agency. The blind spot in Mumford’s use of the metaphor is that he invariably combines a remorseless critique of large-scale “power systems” with the enthusiastic conviction that everything will be for the best if only it is planned.
Totalitarian bureaucracy, however, with its deformation of means and ends and its highly disagreeable consequences, was the proven outcome of his view that societies can be deliberately designed, of his indifference to individual liberty, and of his insistence on taking decision-making out of the hands of the people and on doing things for them. He never faced up to this truth in his writings, and there is little evidence he ever understood it, even though serious thinkers had been discussing it from the very moment Mumford first put pen to paper.
Even as he was writing The Story of Utopias , Ludwig von Mises published an essay entitled “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth ” that, as Raymond Cubeddu put it, “set the scene for the scientific discussion of the problem of socialization. . . . Just when the hopes of socialism seemed to be about to come true Mises voiced the thoughts uppermost in the minds of many who lacked courage to speak out.” On the one hand, Mises argued that “socialism could not work or keep its promises . . . because under such a system economic calculations in terms of value were rendered impossible.” On the other, he asserted that the centralized organization of the economy inevitably “becomes transformed into a totalitarian regime.”
Mumford seems to have known nothing of this. Nor did he know, apparently, about the arguments regarding scientific research and freedom of inquiry set out by Michael Polanyi in the 1930s and 1940s. Nor did he ever understand what Hayek was on about. To be sure, The Road to Serfdom (1944) appeared in the bibliography of Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power , as did Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952), but they were conceitedly taken to illustrate Mumford’s own views on “scientism”, while their economic and political implications were either misunderstood or ignored.
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Yearnings for the Arcadian world of Walden Pond have grown ever stronger over the past fifty years, and romantic utopianism is alive and well. So why has Mumford’s message had so little effect? Two things stand out. The first is the powerful influence of Oswald Spengler—a German authoritarian hard to combine with his early commitment to Emerson and Thoreau. Biographer Donald Miller describes Mumford as what we might call an “optimistic Spengler”, but trying to Americanise the Great Doomsayer with a positive utopian spin is downright impossible. All you get are moralistic demands to reverse direction, frantic admonition, increasingly unreadable jeremiads directed at a citizenry that declines to listen.
This combined with a fundamentally aesthetic view of the world. Aesthetics justified power and promised control. It vanquished ambiguities and the messiness of political debate. It joined the repose of a cloistered life with the insistence that others be ruled from the cloister. Architecture was the queen of the arts—the “commanding art” he said—one that required order and control, and that inevitably meant pushing people around until things looked the way they should. It is not entirely coincidental that a well-known Austrian was a frustrated fine-arts student who developed an abiding passion for architecture as a form of politico-mythic demonstration, or that in their youthful discontent both he and Mumford walked incessantly (the one in Linz, the other in New York), redesigning cities as they went.
“If there is anything that can be called a specific German ideology, it consists in playing off romanticism against the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages against the modern world, culture against civilization, and Gemeinschaft against Gesellschaft”, writes Wolf Lepenies in his recent The Seduction of Culture in German History . Under Spengler’s influence Lewis Mumford bought this whole package. A few pages later Lepenies quotes Thomas Mann to the effect that the democratic spirit “was totally alien to the Germans, who were morally, but not politically, inclined.”
Again the description fits. It is curious that a man who was so quintessentially American in many ways was so Germanic in others. Not speeches and moralistic harangues, just plain conversation with ordinary citizens was needed if he was to get his message across. Nitty gritty political talk. But as an exhibitionistic cultural mandarin he found this too hard. Writing 500-page books was easier.