We Have Become Eisenhower’s Worst Fears: The Establishment of the Scientific-Industrial Complex

In his Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a military industrial complex. He also warned us about big science.

In this farewell address, Dwight D. Eisenhower, two-term President of the United States, and Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force in the European theater in the great war against Fascism, said the following:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. 

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United State corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Many of you will recognize these words. Particularly those of you on the libertarian left who are concerned with the concentration of power in the military-industrial complex. Much as been made of them. However, less has been made of the words that immediately followed:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in its entirety

We have become Eisenhower’s worst fears. Enabled by progressivism, the technocracy has won. Science and technology are now concentrated in the hands of a vast corporate power, the media mouthpieces of this small network of corporations running interference by projecting an official scientific outlook while marginalizing those doing the important work in science: dissenting from doctrine.

Famously, albeit years late, and too partisan for my tastes, political theorist Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Incorporated, described our situation as “inverted totalitarianism,” a managed and illiberal democracy, run by corporations, economic concerns trumping all other considerations.

Richard Grossman, director of Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy, understood inverted totalitarianism as progressivism’s triumph over populism, the latter an attempt to bring power back to the people, to make government accountable to concerns closer to them. Grossman lay out his argument in several talks available on the Internet (“Defining the Corporation, Defining Ourselves” and “Challenging Corporate Law and Lore”). In his account, progressivism, its institutionalization totalized under the Roosevelt Administration in the crisis of depression and war, vanquished populism; or, more accurately, banished it to conservative circles, and with it labor democracy. This was the roots of the war on labor and the left Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pursued in earnest, laying the groundwork for the aggressive transnationalization of the corporate establishment, successive administrations moving farm and factory overseas and drawing cheap labor here to replace American workers, ceding national sovereignty to the international order of financial innovators. In a word, globalization.

As Grossman points out, not even the monarchs of feudalist and early capitalist period tolerated corporate power when it threaten sovereignty. Indeed, as Grossman tells us, corporations held power under absolutism, as well, but it was power delegated by the monarch. Corporations that exceeded their authority were called before the king to be reprimanded, the recalcitrant not dressed down but dismantled, their charters revoked. This is why Thomas Jefferson, a primary author of the American Republic, said of banks and corporations that “the selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.” His conclusion from the observation: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” The “aristocracy of moneyed corporations” is an accurate description of power in the present-day state of affairs.

In theory, corporations are animals of the state. But, unlike their predecessors, states are now the servants of corporate power. Corporations have not only captured politics. They have captured science. And they relentlessly distort its assumptions, methods, and findings.

So we see a thing like the permanent-military complex come into existence in the post-WWII period, fully arrived in Eisenhower’s day. The trepidation in his words telling us that he didn’t see it coming or he was keen on convincing himself that its coming lay in the future. In the latter, he could then could wax noble in his farewell and warn of its coming, while absolving himself of the tyranny realized in his day, that emerged under his watch, masking his failure to stop it. Frankly, he looks haunted in that video.

Whether Eisenhower saw it in real time, C. Wright Mills saw it clearly in the moment. In The Causes of World War Three, written in 1959, he wrote:

The atrocities of The Fourth Epoch are committed by men as “functions” of a rational social machinery—men possessed by an abstracted view that hides from them the humanity of their victims and as well their own humanity. The moral insensibility of our times was made dramatic by the Nazis, but is not the same lack of human morality revealed by the atomic bombing of the peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And did it not prevail, too, among fighter pilots in Korea, with their petroleum-jelly broiling of children and women and men? Auschwitz and Hiroshima—are they not equally features of the highly rational moral-insensibility of The Fourth Epoch? And is not this lack of moral sensibility raised to a higher and technically more adequate level among the brisk generals and gentle scientists who are now rationally—and absurdly—planning the weapons and the strategy of the third world war? These actions are not necessarily sadistic; they are merely businesslike; they are not emotional at all; they are efficient, rational, technically clean-cut. They are inhuman acts because they are impersonal.

Weber might have written these words. Indeed, he did write these words in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905:

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

Military discipline is the ideal model for the modern capitalist factory…. organizational discipline in the factory has a completely rational basis. With the help of suit-able methods of measurement, the optimum profitability of the individual worker is calculated like that of any material means of production. On this basis, the American system of “scientific management” triumphantly proceeds with its rational conditioning and training of work performances, thus drawing the ultimate conclusions from the mechanization and discipline of the plant. The psycho-physical apparatus of man is completely adjusted to the demands of the outer world, the tools, the machines—in short, it is functionalized, and the individual is robbed of his natural rhythm as determined by his organism; in line with the demands of the work procedure, he is attuned to a new rhythm though the functional specialization of muscles and through the creation of an optimal economy of physical effort

This whole process of rationalization, in the factory as elsewhere, and especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master. Thus, discipline inexorably takes over ever larger areas as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly rationalized. This universal phenomenon more and more restricts the importance of charisma and of individually differentiated conduct.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, analyses the situation of a man who was merely “doing his job” and “obeyed orders,” that he “obeyed the law.” The work covers the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi found guilty of war crimes and hanged in 1962. Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, had tasked Eichmann with managing the logistics of transporting Jews from the ghettos to the extermination camps during the Judeocide. Eichmann carried his task forward with no inconsiderable success. His ambitions, Arendt argues, were more bureaucratic than ideological.

Noam Chomsky, author of the landmark Manufacturing Consent, put this well in his notorious debate with William F. Buckley on Firing Line in 1969:

A very, in a sense, terrifying aspect of our society, and other societies, is the equanimity and the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events. I think that’s more terrifying than the occasional Hitler or LeMay or other that crops up. These people would not be able to operate were it not for this apathy and equanimity. And therefore I think that it’s, in some sense, the sane and reasonable and tolerant people who share a very serious burden of guilt that they very easily throw on the shoulders of others who seem more extreme and violent.

One of the benefits of listening to voices who see things clearly and see things coming is that they give us a perspective beyond the consciousness that blinds us to the enslaving structures that produce that consciousness. It may be the case that in a future world we won’t be able to see the reality in front of us. For many people, that world is the present one. Contemporary progressivism is a clinic in false consciousness. The scientific-industrial complex, its latest manifestation the medical-industrial complex, has become an ideological force shaping our worldview. It appears to be even more destructive than the military-industrial complex, which of course it includes, but taken on its own reasonably reassessed as a tick of American-style rationalization. The scientific-industrial complex has overtaken the world.

This essay is a follow up to a recent blog entry: Science and Conspiracy: COVID-19 and the New Religion. I encourage you to read it.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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