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THE SUNDAY STAR, Washington DC, December 27, 1970


BOOKS: Two Conflicting Views of the Same Society





THE MYTH OF THE MACHINE: The Pentagon of Power. By Lewis Mumford, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 496 pages, index and bibliography. $12.05.

BETWEEN TWO AGES America's Role In the Technetronic Era. By Zbigniew Brzezinski. Viking. 324 pages, index and notes. $7.95.



   Here are two more books on what has been happening to the American way of life. One of the chief tasks of such books is to find a name for this new America. Lewis Mumford, who has been writing on this subject for more than a full generation, calls our new system "the megamachine," while Brzezinski, a very late arrival in this arena, calls it "the Technetronic Era." Whatever it may be called, there is fairly general agreement as to the nature of this new way of life, although Brzezinski, who makes a good living out of it, does not disapprove of what is happening, as do most of the writers on the subject.

   In Mumford's case, as might be expected, the disapproval is vehement. But his shots are relatively dispersed by the fact that he approaches the subject from a historical point of view. In the first volume of “The Myth of the Machine" (reviewed here on Mar. 21, 1967) Mumford covered the historical development from the origins of man to about 1500. In this second volume he carries the story on from 1500 to the present. As always, he displays very wide knowledge, acute perception, powerful writing, and numerous valuable — and often original — insights into history. But Mumford's picture of history is too unconventional and too episodic to gain general assent for his view of where we have arrived today.

Authors: Mumford Brzezinski


Not a Lawyer's Brief

   In, general, I would agree with much of what he says about recent centuries and regret that most historians will pay little heed to his revisions and insights, but history should not be written as a lawyer's brief indicting the present; it should be written in terms of the way people lived their lives in a different and changing past. In Mumford's book the whole is not as good as many of the parts. In fact, some of the chapters are relatively isolated from the rest and, while usually very interesting, appear as a series of essays rather than as a continuous history.

   Moreover, this historical approach to the subject tends to weaken Mumford's indictment of how things are today. The indictment is there, but its point will be clearer to those who are already familiar with Mumford's life-long devotion to personal and spiritual values and his extended past criticism of the technology and bureaucratic structures which tend to destroy such values.

   Mumford's indictment of American life today is similar to that of many other writers on the subject: that we are increasingly dominated by a monstrous structure of technology and bureaucracy which destroys wider and wider areas of natural and human relationships, sacrificing quality to quantity and men to hardware and to organizational forms in a megamachine which is a fusion of public and private power. In this machine men who have been deformed and distorted by it, both emotionally and intellectually, seek personal power rather than affluence or personal maturation regardless of the costs in terms of those things which make men truly human in a qualitative way.


Blinded by Myths

   Besides this general weakness of this book, there is a more specific weakness: its later chapters are increasingly rhetorical and vague rather than specific and precise. The megamachine is, indeed, the result of a long historic process. We are handicapped In seeing its operational nature, partly because we are blinded by myths and words and partly because we are still ignorant of many of its complexities, which are rarely mentioned in the news media and even more rarely discussed in our educational institutions. But the general characteristics of the system are clear; (1) in our economy, money flows in increasingly destructive paths rather than constructive ones; (2) our corporative structure is excessively complex, secret, and destructive; (3) our minds and emotions are constantly being brainwashed in narrow, degrading, and mistaken ways; our tax laws are wrongheaded, inequitable, and are the chief mechanism by which money is made to flow in destructive channels; and (5) our political arrangements are faulty, giving undue advantages to special interests, to ignorance, secrecy, and corruption.

   Mumford says little about these basic causes which contribute so strongly to the growth of the megamachine. Neither does Brzezinski. The latter is director of Columbia University's Research Institute on Communist Affairs and is very close to the megamachine which Mumford dislikes, He is a frequent consultant and lecturer to governmental agencies and, in the late years of the Johnson administration, was a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council. He left Poland in 1938, at the age of ten, and has been an American citizen since 1953. A prolific writer on Soviet affairs and an associate of RAND, Inc., he has been a very active supporter of Lyndon Johnson and of Hubert Humphrey and has built a successful career which is deeply rooted in the cold war. In recent years, he has been increasingly writing on the United States.


Statistical Emphasis

   Brzezinski knows a great deal about politics, but he consistently understands much less than he knows. His mind is descriptive rather than analytical or subtle and operates very largely on the surface of things and confined to the political area. He sees technology and organizational arrangements but is relatively blind to psychology, human emotions, and values, his historical and sociological perspectives are shallow, and he is very naive about the relationships between words and reality. He is confident that statistics express real conditions and does not hesitate to use statistics of national incomes as measurements of the quality of life in different countries. In fact, Brzezinski generally fails to appreciate those qualitative aspects of life which are so important to Mumford. For example, Brzezinski discusses various "global aspects of the Technetronic Revolution," including "the Subjective Transformation," but under this last term he restricts his vision to the UNESCO statistics on numbers of children in schools with a few additional remarks on the movement of Negroes from the rural South to the urban North and points out the higher unemployment figures for northern cities (pages 40-48), This bluntness of mind appears throughout this book: in his failure to see the unconscious ethnocentric imperialism in international development programs (p. 59), in his assumption that the whole world wants to fallow America's footsteps toward a technetronic life, for "contemporary America is the world's social laboratory" (p. 196), but, unfortunately, only 15 countries can look forward to achieving America's 1965 income levels by the year 2000. Brzezinski is convinced that America's Technetronic Revolution is sweeping the world which is now moving "toward a Planetary Consciousness" (pages 58-62); indeed, "a rudimentary framework of global social and economic institutions has already taken shape." Brzezinski sees this framework of institutions in such things as the World Health Organization, the FAO, UNESCO, and the World Bank, which shows clearly the superficial levels on which his thinking moves.


Few Reservations

   Brzezinski seems totally unaware of the revulsion against this Technetronic Revolution which is taking place here in America, as well as in other places in the world. He sees only what he expects to see from his own narrow and rather rigid point of view and he is convinced of the righteousness of what he likes and approves. His professional life, as shown in this volume and others of his works, is more concerned with rationalizing what is going on than in understanding it. His few reservations about our American way of life, such as excessive violence on TV, or our "antiquated and often absurd" system of justice (pages 213-214) appear to him as surface blemishes rather than symptoms of any deeper malaise.

   Mumford's book is worth reading for its numerous original insights, but no one need spend his time or money on the Brzezinski book except to find out the kind of thinking our public officials have been getting in recent years from some advisers.

   The problem that Brzezinski is discussing is of vital importance, but it has been examined by another political scientist with greater knowledge and a far more sophisticated mind (as well as a much superior writer) in "Technological Man" by Victor Ferkiss (reviewed in The Star July 6, 1969). Brzezinski has read Ferkiss, but, unfortunately, has not digested what he had to say.


Carroll Quigley teaches history history at Georgetown University. He is the author of "Tragedy and Hope: the World in Our Time." (Macmillan, 1966).


Scan of original review



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