Power and Technology in Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Plan

Asaf J Shamis. Israel Studies. Volume 25, Issue 2. Summer 2020.


The article traces the role of technical expertise and modern technology in Herzl’s Zionist plan. Writers about Herzl have claimed misleadingly that in keeping with his vision, expertise and technology were to be subject to social and political controls. However, a closer examination of Herzl’s accounts of the Zionist movement and later on, of the Jewish state reveals that the experts and their highly centralized technical systems were themselves the driving force behind Herzl’s envisioned Zionist enterprise. The article seeks to elucidate Herzl’s distinctive notion of technological control as the sociopolitical underpinning of his Zionist plan.

“Many historical forms of statecraft and almost all conceptions of utopia rest on an implicitly technological model. When conditions of the political world seem uncertain, unmanageable, or otherwise undesirable, technique and artifice offer a tantalizing solution.” (Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology)

“The real founders of ‘Old-New-Land,'” said David, “were the hydraulic engineers. There was everything in having the swamps drained, the arid tracts irrigated, and a system of power supply installed.” (Herzl, Old-New Land)

Herzl’s interest in technology is a familiar theme in Herzlian scholarship. His principal biographers note his fascination with technology from an early age. Other works have dealt with Herzl’s curious preoccupation with technological inventions in the journalistic writings. Herzl’s many references to technology in his Zionist writings have likewise received considerable scholarly attention. Yet, although scholars have drawn attention to Herzl’s curious preoccupation with technological inventions, none correlate it with Herzl’s Zionist ideas. The article looks beyond the distinction drawn in the existing literature between the sociopolitical and the technological aspects of Herzl’s thought and sheds light on the sociopolitical role played by technical expertise and technology in his Zionist plan.

Studies in the fields of History of Science and Technology (HST), Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Actor-network Theory (ANT) have been looking at the social and political significance of technology for several decades and demonstrated the value of viewing technical objects not merely as implements in the hands of autonomous human beings but rather as “participants”—as Bruno Latour puts it—that afford sociopolitical phenomena. They show that while technical expertise and technology may be utilized to accomplish predetermined social and political ends, they may also serve as overarching forces that frame and regulate social life and political institutions. This is true of printing industries, highways, electric grids, railroads or more recently, the Internet. This rich literature has opened new ways of thinking about the role of technical expertise and technology in the making of modern society and its politics.

The article seeks to use this conceptual perspective to explore the use of technical expertise and technology in Herzl’s Zionist plan. Doing so calls into question the distinction made in the existing Herzl scholarship between social policy and technology. The analysis shows that in Herzl’s plan, power does not spring from the Jewish people and is not sustained by elected officials. It stems, rather, from technical experts and is maintained by technical systems. In Herzl’s Zionist plan, experts and their protocols regulate all operations and activities. The following discussion sheds light on technological control as a latent form of social and political power underpinning Herzl’s Zionist enterprise.

The remainder of the article is organized as follows: 1) The first section presents the argument in the context of existing research about Herzl’s approach to technology; 2) The second, traces the two contesting patterns of relationship between human beings and technology as Herzl describes them in the Jewish State: on the one hand, the technical experts who enjoy complete autonomy in their employment of technology to accomplish social and political ends, and on the other, the Jewish masses who are administered and disciplined by the technological infrastructure of the Zionist enterprise; 3) The second and third sections center on Herzl’s treatment of technology in Altneuland. Here, too, the different ways in which the major protagonists of the novel engage with technology are explored, shedding light on Herzl’s full-fledged understanding of technological control as a form of social and political power. The final section will draw some general conclusions about the relationship between power and technology in Herzl’s Zionist plan.

Existing Literature on Herzland Technology

A survey of the existing scholarly literature on Herzl reveals that Herzl scholars hold steadfastly to the modernist assumption that the sociopolitical and the technological exist in two distinctive realms. Consequently, the current works relegate the advanced systems of mass transportation, communication and production which Herzl promotes throughout his Zionist writings to the status of means in the service of his prescribed Zionist goals. Similarly, they analyze the main agencies animating Herzl’s Zionist enterprise—the Society of Jews, the Jewish Company, and the New Society’s Presidency—as if they have nothing to do with the technical infrastructure Herzl discusses throughout his Zionist writings.

A case in point is Derek Penslar’s work on Herzl. Penslar, more than others, is attuned to the social and political implications of technical expertise and modern technology in Herzl’s Zionist plan. He identifies Herzl as a leading member of the German-speaking technocratic elite which headed the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) activities in pre-WW I Palestine. Penslar stresses Herzl’s technocratic ideal despite his own lack of professional training, and draws particular attention to the decisive role Herzl assigned to advanced agricultural technologies in his vision of a productive and socially progressive Jewish state.

Although Penslar is at pains to show technology and technical knowledge as key to Herzl’s Zionist plan, like other Herzl scholars, he remains committed to the modernist conception of the “technical” as distinct from, and thus subordinate to, the “social” and the “political”. This is most apparent in his treatment of the notion of “technocracy”, which he uses as a general framework for analyzing Herzl’s Zionist plan. When operationalizing the term, Penslar makes clear that the settlement engineers (Herzl among them) never “sought power in the name of a technocratic ideal”. Elsewhere, Penslar goes so far as to reduce Herzl’s writings about technology to the status of “metaphors” that aim at “lending legitimacy to his (Herzl’s) Zionist vision”.

Yet, if we override this conventional separation between the technical and the sociopolitical, as HST, STS and ANT literature suggests, then we must extend the analysis of Herzl’s Zionist planning to the technical domain. If technologies have agency, we should investigate the social and political role Herzl assigns to them in his Zionist program. The next section explores this significant, albeit largely unexplored, region in Herzl’s Jewish State.

Jewish/Technological Relations in the Jewish State

In his introductory chapter to the Jewish State Herzl makes the following observation:

“The world possesses slaves of extraordinary capacity for work, whose appearance has been fatal to the production of handmade goods: these slaves are the machines.”

Shortly thereafter, Herzl adds:

In the earliest period of European railway construction some ‘practical’ people were of the opinion that it was foolish to build certain lines ‘because there were not even sufficient passengers to fill the mail-coaches.’ They did not realize the truth—which now seems obvious to us—the travelers do not produce railways, but conversely, railways produce travelers, the latent demand, of course, is taken for granted.

These two passages have little to say about Herzl’s Zionist plan, but they give us a first inking of the principal connection Herzl draws between technology and sociopolitical power. In the first passage, Herzl points to the impact of technology (production machines) on modern labor; in the second passage, he stresses the ability of technology (railways) to shape social practices (traveling routes). Nonetheless, while in both passages Herzl proposes a direct connection between technology and common social practices, he seems to describe this connection as going in two opposite directions. In the first passage Herzl adheres to a simple instrumentalist approach to industrial production machines as “slaves” employed by workers. In the second passage, however, the relation between the social process and technology is inverted. In that passage, Herzl does not consider railroads as merely instrumental but describes them as overarching systems that shape peoples’ traveling routes.

The two contrasting patterns of relationship that emerge from the above passages can be illustrated with the following flowcharts:

What may explain the discrepancy between the two patterns of human/technology relations? To answer this question, we must further explore where else these two patterns appear in the Jewish State. A quick review of the texts suggests that Herzl maintains the instrumentalist position particularly when dealing with the Society of Jews (hereafter the Society) or when describing his own role in the Zionist project. Herzl describes the Society as enjoying complete mastery over the Zionist plan and a final say on the operation of the various technologies included in it. It employs steam-driven ships and trains to facilitate and direct the flow of human and material resources into the new territory; utilizes telegraph and telephone networks to bolster international support; and possesses the technical expertise to manage the construction of houses, streets, and towns. For the Society and for Herzl, technologies are indeed to be used as slaves for the achievement of a predetermined plan and the technological infrastructure as a means for achieving their ends.

We further find the instrumentalist pattern of Jewish/technology relations in Herzl’s accounts of the Jewish Company (hereafter the Company). Yet, there is one fundamental difference in the way the Society and the Company relate to technology. Unlike the Society, the Company lacks any will of its own when employing technologies. It uses them to achieve goals already prescribed by the Society and indeed its sole purpose is to employ technologies according to the Society’s instructions. The dazzling number of tasks the Company is responsible for—including the transport of the Jews to their new national home; building schools, hospitals and factories; and establishing the economic system—all are carried out “in accordance with a large and previously settled plan” drafted by the Society.

If we find an instrumentalist pattern of Jewish/technology relations in Herzl’s accounts of the Society and Company, where do we detect the heteronomous pattern of relations? We find it in Herzl’s portrayals of the Jewish people who join his Zionist enterprise. It is at this point in Herzl’s plan that technology and society invert their interrelations. While the Society and the Company are in control of technology, the Jewish masses are primarily controlled by it. For the Zionist farmer, builder or factory worker, technologies are not tools in their service; they themselves are at the service of the farming, construction, and production machines.

When following Herzl’s accounts of the Jewish masses, one is struck by how small their input is in Herzl’s project. They appear to be in a thoroughly heteronomous state, not only vis-à-vis technology but in relation to the overall Zionist enterprise. Their real estate is sold; lands are purchased in their name; cities are planned for them; jobs are allocated for them; social norms and political institutions are constituted on their behalf. Even when it comes to economic innovation, Herzl adopts a top-down approach: each enterprise, he contends, must be thoroughly reviewed, supervised, and adjusted in accordance with the general plan as outlined by the Society.

Based on the discussion thus far, we may visualize Herzl’s Zionist enterprise as a centralized structure comprised of three levels of technological control. At the center, we find the Society and Herzl who direct the various technologies involved in the Zionist enterprise. Surrounding them is the Company, which employs technologies according to the Society’s (and Herzl’s) plan. Lastly, the rank and file are relegated to the periphery, their role limited to serving the technical means used to carry out the Zionist mission.

When we view this centralized structure in Herzl’s historical context, it is hard not to notice its resemblance to the centralized design of the great technical projects of his time. Herzl’s project seems to take after Edison’s electric grid, in which electricity is distributed by a single transmission system to individual customers; the mass circulation outlets of the time, in which a single source (such as a printing machine, a radio antenna or a telegraph line) spreads information to numerous audiences; and the great canal through which maritime traffic flows. All these technical systems are characterized by a one-directional flow of power emanating from the center to the periphery. Herzl repeatedly mentions these projects throughout his Zionist writings. In the opening of the Jewish State, he equates the Zionist enterprise overtly with Edison’s power grid. Later on in the text, he calls it the “Suez”—alluding, of course, to the construction of the Suez Canal (opened in 1869). On many other occasions, Herzl alludes to the railroad networks, water canals, and telecommunications (telegraph and telephone) networks of his time. The centralized architecture of all these projects, then, appears to serve Herzl as a “sociotechnical imaginary” to use Sheila Jasanoff’s term when he ponders the inner workings of his enterprise, i.e., a performative vision attainable through and supportive of a particular set of technologies.

The analysis thus far offers a preliminary indication of Herzl’s principal position vis-à-vis technical control as a form of sociopolitical power. In the centralized structure of Herzl’s Zionist enterprise, the more technical knowledge one attains and the more control one has over technology, the more central one’s position is within the enterprise. For the Society and for Herzl himself, technologies are indeed slaves. For the Jewish masses, however, they are large-scale systems over which they have little control.

This preliminary discussion raises a series of questions: If Herzl indeed envisioned the Zionist enterprise as a technical order of sorts, who were to be its leaders? How did he conceptualize relations between the politicians and the trained technicians? Did Herzl continue to adhere to his position of technological control as a form of social and political power, after he embarked on his Zionist activities? To answer this question, we must turn to Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland.

The (Zionist) System Builder

Herzl finished writing Altneuland in April 1902—six years after the publication of the Jewish State. By this point in time, he was no longer a lone visionary of an unexciting enterprise, but the recognized leader of a rising movement. Despite the long way he had come since he first set down his initial Zionist plan, in Altneuland we encounter the same three-tiered centralized architecture. In his novel, however, Herzl portrays the agents of the three tiers as literary figures rather than legal/administrative entities. This, in turn, leads him to provide a richer account of the dynamics between them.

Most of the information about the initial stages of the Zionist project is found in the fourth section of the novel. The previous sections tell the story of a young Jewish gentleman Friedrich Löwenberg and a Prussian aristocrat named Kingscourt who decided to retire from civilized life and live out their lives on a remote Pacific island. On their way to the island, they stop in Palestine, where they find a backward and neglected land. More than twenty years later (1923), the two decide to return to the civilized world and on their way back they stop again in Palestine, only to find an advanced and prosperous Jewish society. Herzl dedicates most of the novel to an account of Löwenberg and Kingscourt’s firsthand impressions of the futuristic New Society and its enlightened inhabitants. As late as the fourth section of the novel, Löwenberg and Kingscourt, sitting at the Passover Seder table, ask their hosts to tell them about the founding of the New Society. To do so, their hosts summon a mysterious figure named Joseph Levi (aka Tschoe or Joe).

Despite his tardy appearance, it soon becomes evident that Levi is a pivotal figure in the New Society. Herzl dedicates no fewer than three chapters to chronicling Levi’s undertakings. In these chapters, we learn that Levi is, in fact, the literary personification of the Society of Jews (and of Herzl himself). Levi, it emerges, was the one who negotiated the charter agreement with the Turkish government; it was he who planned and oversaw the execution of the transportation of Jews to Palestine; and it was he as well who drew up the settlement plans. In structural terms, Levi occupies the center of the Zionist enterprise.

Through Herzl’s accounts of Levi, we gain a close-up view of how Herzl’s centralized structure works on the ground. Levi tells the guests that shortly after signing the charter agreement with the Turkish government, he was named General Manager of the New Society for the Colonization of Palestine. Levi was never elected to this position: he does not derive his authority from the Jewish people. He states: “Fortunately. I am not a politician. Never was one. Never shall be. I had my job and did it.” From Levi’s accounts it is evident that his power over the enterprise is that of a technical expert. His central position within it is premised on a network of human and technological resources through which he plans and oversees the whole operation.

The primary means Levi has to run the enterprise is a small group of highly-trained experts: Smith is in charge of passenger traffic, Steineck of construction, Rubenz of freight, Warszawski of purchasing machinery, Alladino of land purchase, Kohn and Brownstone of the commissariat, Harburger of seeds and saplings, and Leonkin of the accounting department. There is also a chief engineer (Fischer) and a general secretary (Wellner). From Herzl’s accounts it is evident that these so-called Department Heads perform the tasks of the Jewish Company. As such, they exhibit the same human/technology pattern of relations. They are in charge of carrying out the various tasks involved in the project, yet they lack any will of their own. Immediately after nominating the deputies, Levi sends each of them across the globe to set in motion the Zionist enterprise. He sends Alladino to Palestine to buy available land; Harburger to Australia to buy “eucalyptus saplings and Mediterranean plants;” and Warszawski to America to buy the latest “agricultural machinery.” All along, Levi maintains total control over his deputies’ whereabouts and actions.

“All important data were cabled to me promptly, with facts and figures,” Levi explains to the guests. “Any of my chiefs who saw something new or practical that we could use—whether it came under his department or not—was to inform me of it, preferably by cable…” he continues. “We succeeded because we always kept our methods up to the minute,” he concludes.

The most revealing passages are those in which Herzl recounts Levi’s work habits. Levi oversees the operation of the enterprise with the help of a set of world maps he keeps in his London office, together with colored glass-headed pins he has specially prepared for this purpose. He places each colored pin on the maps to indicate the socio-technical profile of each Jewish community. A white-headed pin means that the local group is still in the initial stages of preparing lists of workers; a green-headed pin signifies a predominant agricultural community; a red pin stands for artisans; a yellow pin for master-workmen; while a black pin denotes that the members of the community have previously failed to fulfill their prescribed goals. Levi cross-references all this information with lists of demographic data he orders to prepare for him. The lists include the age, place of birth, present occupation, family circumstances, and economic status of each potential candidate for immigration. Levi uses an additional set of maps and pins to indicate the planned shipments coming into Palestine. Another set denotes the whereabouts of the available means of transportation. Based on all this data, Levi single-handedly manages and directs the grand Zionist scheme.

Levi’s control over the enterprise, then, is premised primarily on the technical devices at his disposal and the information they provide him about every aspect of the Zionist project at any given moment. All human, material, and technological resources of the enterprise are literally laid out in front of him in maps, pins, charts, and telegrams. He holds detailed information on every participant who joins the enterprise, every building erected, ever shipment made. He knows exactly who does what and how it all fits together in the overall plan. Based on the information he has, Levi adds, subtracts, and relocates the pins, that is to say—the humans and technologies who work in the Zionist enterprise. He notes: “Thanks to my reports and maps, I was able to keep in daily touch with the most detailed phases of the undertaking through many years. These maps and telegrams followed me everywhere.”

More importantly, the depiction of Levi provides us with another indication of Herzl’s principled view of technical control as a form of sociopolitical power. Levi’s figure epitomizes Herzl’s faith in the ability of the technological expert to establish and manage all the Zionist operations. His expertise endows him with unqualified social and political power.

The other side of Levi’s absolute power is, of course, the submissive condition of the common members of the New Society. As in the Jewish State, the Jewish people’s heteronomous relations vis-à-vis technology in Altneuland result in their social and political subjection. Whereas Herzl infuses Levi with omnipotent power, he describes the Jewish masses as being essentially docile. The hundreds of thousands of farmers, skilled workers, and city dwellers who flow into Palestine have no way of grasping Levi’s plan and their role in it. They have no maps, reports or pins: their only possessions are their skills as listed in Levi’s charts. Moreover, although Levi remains at his headquarters in London, the Jewish laborers are readily distinguishable and visible to him. They are literally what Foucault terms “objects of knowledge”—colored pins on maps and items in statistical charts. They are moved around based on their socio-technical profile and the demands of Levi’s plans.

The New (Disciplinary) Society

What happens to the centralized Zionist structure once the New Society is founded? Do politicians take the reins of power? Are the members of the New Society finally free to live their lives as they please?

We do not know much about Levi in the post-construction period. From the information Herzl does provide about him, we know that by the time the story takes place, Levi is no longer the General Manager of the New Society. His official title is the General Director of the Department of Industry. We also learn that Levi is not often in Palestine. He spends most of his time touring Europe, hunting for new technologies that may be useful for the New Society. No-one ever knows where Levi is at any given time. “Tomorrow he may be on his way to America if he does not go on to London or return to Palestine.”

As for the common members of the New Society, they appear to live a happy and liberated life. Herzl dedicates most of the novel to a description of Löwenberg and Kingscourt’s firsthand impression of everyday life in the New Society. What stands out in these accounts is the absence of state. Whereas in the Jewish State Herzl envisages a sovereign Jewish state, in Altneuland he describes the New Society as essentially stateless. There is no government, but rather a Council of Administration. There are no economic institutions, but only a “mutualist” economic system. Industry, science, education, housing, and commerce are all managed through cooperative arrangements. Land is under public ownership and newspapers and banks are jointly owned by workers. There is not even an army. Members of this society appear to hold both negative and positive freedom. They are free to live their lives as they please and are not under any state power.

Yet, there is something odd about the New Society. Though the state is nowhere to be seen, every aspect of life seems to be meticulously planned. The cities are immaculately clean; noise is kept to an absolute minimum; traffic runs smoothly; the young play tennis while the elderly bask in the sun; everyone is decent, tolerant, and hard working. Even for a Utopia, the New Society seems a tad too perfect. Given the absence of any coercive state institutions or law enforcement forces, it is hard to explain how such a perfect order is sustained. This is so insofar as we limit our analysis to the sociopolitical realm. However, extending the analysis to the technical infrastructure of the New Society illuminates its role in sustaining this tight ship.

Despite Levi’s absence and the liberal air of the New Society, a closer look at Herzl’s descriptions of everyday life in the New Society indicates that the centralized power structure is still very much in place. Though the members of the New Society appear to live an unrestrained life, they are still bound up in Levi’s systems of energy, transportation and production. Their work, social relations, personal choices, and even movement in space are disciplined by the overarching socio-technical infrastructure created by Levi. Their mundane activities are calculated, organized, and technically thought out. These systems continue to function in a sense as extensions of Levi’s will. This is clearly seen from Herzl’s account of urban life. Among the most impressive features of the New Society are its urban centers, Haifa (aka the World City), Tiberias, and Jerusalem. Löwenberg and Kingscourt are taken aback by the bustling city life in Palestine. The protagonists repeatedly mention how happy and free people look in the New Society’s cities. However, the impression the reader gets is of a highly-regimented form of life. One of the main protagonists of the novel, Professor Steineck—the Chief Architect of the New Society—accompanies the guests on their tour of Palestine. His comments along the way are a constant reminder that nothing they see is fortuitous. As they tour the gorgeous cities of the New Society, Steineck explains to the guests how the orderly streams of people, the soundless traffic, the well-lit and shaded streets—are all merely the products of Levi’s plans.

Levi’s presence is further felt in the protagonists’ physical movement in space. The New Society does not appear to have any definite internal or external borders. However, in order to move around, members of the New Society must use Levi’s transportation networks. Löwenberg and Kingscourt spend much of the novel traveling across Palestine. Yet, they do not roam it freely, but use the electric cars, boats, and trains that travel along planned routes. They never get off the main trail. Occasionally, their hosts mention that they have an option to take the train rather than a car or a boat. However, at no point are they able to wander freely around the cities, towns, and villages of the New Society. Throughout the novel, their physical movement is regulated by the railways, highways, and shipping lanes Levi and his deputies originally planned.

The overwhelming presence of Levi’s centralized power structure becomes clearer as Löwenberg and Kingscourt travel through Palestine. It is particularly apparent during the group’s visit to the “model farm” toward the end of the novel. On their way to the Jordan Valley, the group decides to stop at a farm for a firsthand glimpse of rural life in the New Society. The farm manager shows the guests around, and Löwenberg is especially impressed by the orderly manner in which work is being conducted. All chores are managed by a “central electric station … covered with buttons, numbers and little tablets.” The station is operated by two simply-dressed young girls who work under the instructions of a clerk who “continually put up the telephone receiver to his ear.” The manager explains to the guests that the station regulates the flow of power not only to the farm but to the nearby sugar factory, brewery, spirit refinery, and mill. Based on reports from the various factories, the clerk orders the girls to switch the electric current on and off. Herzl describes the highly orderly manner in which the farm is run:

The place was painfully clean, and all work was performed so quietly that one could not help noting it. The great wheels of the estate turned with a minimum of noise. A group of workers in uniform passed by, tools slung over their shoulders, and eyes averted. Some of them seemed sullen, others shy. They gave the manager the military salute.

Seeing the group of workers, Löwenberg feels uncomfortable. This is the only occasion in the novel where a major figure expresses reservations about the New Society. Löwenberg turns to Littwak and the farm’s manager and says:

These laborers seem peculiarly depressed, as if the splendid machine they serve had somehow crushed something in them. Of what good are all the clever mechanical devices if people are none the happier for using them? These men remind me of the factory workers of my day. I admit, they look less sad, and seem to be healthier. Nevertheless, there is a resemblance. That is what troubles me. Knowing that this farm belongs to a benevolent association, I expected to see happier-looking people. I confess, I am a bit disappointed.

Upon hearing Löwenberg’s remark, the farm manager looks puzzled. He turns to Littwak and asks him if Löwenberg is aware where he is. Littwak replies that he is not. As it turns out, the model farm is actually a penal colony. Littwak did not tell Löwenberg about the true nature of the farm because he wanted him to gain an unbiased impression of it. He continues to describe the penal colony as a new type of “free prison.” The daily routine at the farm seeks to restore the prisoners’ physical and moral health. The manager tells the guests proudly that indeed, after serving their sentence, most of the prisoners choose to remain at the farm as hired laborers or to become independent farmers. Upon hearing these descriptions, Löwenberg, as expected, overturns his opinion of the place.

The “free prison” is a peculiar place. In fact, it looks awfully like Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon penitentiary. In Bentham’s penitentiary, a single watchman is able to exert absolute power over a large number of inmates, thanks to his position at the center, while the prisoners’ cells are located in a circular structure around him. The watchman does not only prevent the inmates from escaping, but his ability to surveil their every movement equip him with the capacity to adjust their behavior.

Herzl’s penal colony seems to operate on the same principle as Bentham’s panopticon penitentiary. The difference, however, lies in the role Herzl assigns to technological control. In Herzl’s case, Bentham’s “inspection house” is replaced with a “central electric station” that monitors the prisoners stationed around the perimeter. More importantly, the “free prison” gives us a glimpse of how technical power governs the New Society in the post-construction period. Surely, Levi is not a warder and the members of the New Society are not prisoners. However, underpinning their relations is the same type of power structure. Levi’s infrastructure grants him a panoptical position within the New Society. Though he himself is rarely found in Palestine, he is able to exert control over all aspects of life through the systems of transportation, communication, and supply he has put in place. Thus, the power that regulates and maintains the New Society is not Weberian. It does not rest on monopoly over the use of violence. The state, in fact, is absent altogether. The power of the New Society is purely disciplinary. It rests on the technical ability to monitor, routinize, and adjust everyday life.

This brings us to the ultimate goal of Levi’s project (i.e. Herzl’s Zionist enterprise). Levi’s transportation, communication and production systems do not aim merely at regulating life in the New Society; their ultimate goal is to transform Jewish nature. This transformation occurs not vis-à-vis the founding of the New Society, but through everyday life as the people engage with Levi’s infrastructural systems. Herzl takes pains to show throughout the novel how the daily routines in the New Society reconfigure the age-old norms and habits of diasporic life. Going about their everyday lives the people embark on their re-creation. Once they participate in Levi’s free, egalitarian system of commerce, they are transformed from petty traders into industrialists and entrepreneurs. Traveling in his railways, canals, and roads, they break down the walls of the ghetto. Once they occupy the villas, and frequent the coffeehouses and theaters of the New Society, they evolve into cultivated ladies and gentlemen. Thus, Levi’s technical systems are the means by which Herzl hopes to reconfigure Jewish nature. His myriad techniques and technologies routinize Jewish behavior and seek to save the Jews by transforming them from a deprived and unwelcome minority into an independent and honorable people.

What is striking in Herzl’s account of this transformation is how little input the Jewish people themselves have in it. Their makeover is not engendered by their intrinsic will or their self-ascribed activities. Rather, it is bestowed on them as they pursue their lives in the New Society. Their heteronomous state is evident throughout Altneuland. For instance, when David Littwak explains how the New Society got rid of petty trading, he explains: “(they) became discouraged and bewildered, and were forced out of business.” He adds, “both production and consumption … cure(d) our small tradesmen of certain outworn, uneconomic, and injurious forms of trade.”

The same disciplinary approach is apparent in David Littwak’s speech at the rally in Neudorf (“New Village”). Littwak reminds his fellow members of the New Society how little they had to do in the re-creation of their own lives:

… all we see here is the work of your hands. Your hands made it indeed, but your brains did not conceive it. You are not so ignorant, thank Heaven, as the peasants of other times and countries; but you do not know the origin of your own happier circumstances.

Littwak stresses the same point in an earlier conversation with two guests about the old and new Jewish societies. He explains to them that there is no real difference between the two: the only difference, he asserts, is in the way the members of those societies are organized:

You must keep in mind the fact that systematic planning makes everything more economical. The old society was rich enough at the beginning of this century, but it suffered from ineffable confusion … Those people were no worse and no more stupid than we. Or, if you like, we are neither better nor cleverer than they. Our success in social experiment is due to another cause … we rejuvenated the institutions … The administration of any state you may have been familiar with will be an example of what I mean.

In Altneuland Herzl depicts the transformation of the Jewish people as a product of Levi’s technical infrastructure. This, in turn, draws our attention to the fact that while the New Society may be a perfect society, it is also a highly disciplined one. The systems of transportation, communication, production, and energy supply Levi has set up do not only serve as a neutral infrastructure upon which life in the New Society is conducted. Rather, this system imposes a rigid and demanding set of rules, duties, and performance that reconfigures longstanding Jewish habits. The agricultural cooperatives, the railroad network, the lavish theaters, and the open factories are all designed to curb the Jewish inclination to dependence, indolence, and selfishness, while stimulating their independent, productive, and selfless traits. Thus, the end-goal of Levi’s power structure (and of Herzl’s Zionist plan) is to utilize technical power to refashion Jewish nature. As the Jewish people plow the fields, work in the factories, clean the streets, and enjoy the theater, they gradually adjust their behavioral patterns and natural inclinations until they are eventually reprogramed, so to speak. Levi’s meticulous planning and careful monitoring and the disciplined behavior of the members of the New Society all come together to form a clean, efficient, and decent Jewish way of life.


The analysis along this article indicates that underlying the liberal institutions allegedly running Herzl’s Zionist enterprise, there is a highly centralized system managed by technical experts who are actually in control. While the higher political tier is bottom-up and visible, the lower, sociotechnical tier is top-down and covert. As the analysis demonstrates, real power—that is, the power to re-create and organize a new Jewish society—is concentrated in the lower rather than in the upper tier. The technical experts and the technological infrastructure compose the true system of government that runs Herzl’s enterprise.

The contrast between the two tiers finds its clearest expression in Altneuland. The New Society is not a sovereign society founded on brute physical force. It is a disciplinary society in which authority is based on technical control. True enough, the members of the New Society attend rallies, take part in public debates, vote, and run for office. Yet, as they engage in debates over Jewish identity, freedom, or religion and social justice, they remain inextricably bound up with Levi’s habit-forming infrastructure.

Interestingly, toward the end of the novel, an opportunity arises for the sociotechnical tier to shore up and merge with the political one. In the congress that takes place in Jerusalem, the elected officials of the New Society propose to nominate Levi as their President. Levi’s response to them is unequivocal:

I am highly honored by this nomination. But I do not wish to put the congress to the trouble of voting on a roll call … I am determined, even if I am elected, not to serve … My reasons, ladies and gentlemen, are simple. I feel that I still have much energy to devote to my work. If you are satisfied with what I am doing, let me go on as I am. Electing me to the presidency would mean sending me into retirement. And, despite my gray hairs, I believe myself still too young for that.

Levi, it seems, is well-aware that real power in the New Society rests not in the political but in the technical realm. He knows that the most powerful position in the New Society is not that of the president but of the system builder. He might enjoy a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as president but his power as the system builder is far wider. Unlike the president, he controls the infrastructural systems that regulate all aspects of life in the New Society. Moreover, as a system builder his power is unchecked. He does not have to run for office nor to maintain the support of his constituencies. He refuses the nomination because he knows that would entail a demotion. In structural terms, it would mean he would have to abandon his position at the center of the enterprise. Levi’s refusal of the presidency, then, does not manifest his will to relinquish power. On the contrary, it exhibits his will to continue to exert comprehensive control over the New Society.

More importantly, Levi’s refusal to jump into the political arena demonstrates Herzl’s steadfast commitment to the notion of technical control as the principle force that will govern the Jewish state once it is established. This commitment is even more evident in Levi’s apparent scorn for ordinary politics. Levi’s well-mannered response in the passage cited above cannot hide his disdain of traditional politics. For a professional expert like him, the presidency of the New Society is tantamount to early retirement. This seems to be the principle position underlying Herzl’s Zionist plan. In Altneuland as in the Jewish State, Herzl considers centralized technological control to be a superior form of political power. In this sense, the two texts may be read as a call to position Jewish politics on the new foundations of science and technology.

This analysis suggests that long before discussions about the disciplinary power relations in the information society came into vogue, Herzl held a sophisticated view of technological control as a form of social and political power. When devising his Zionist plan, he did not place his faith in the straightforward coercive power of the formal institutions of the Zionist movement. Rather, he trusted in the emergence of centralized transportation, communication, and production systems. In Herzl’s plan, centralized forms of command and control replace brute power as the fundamental method of ordering society. Most of all Herzl trusted the capacity of these systems to solve the Jewish problem by transforming what he considered a dependent, torpid, and self-absorbed Jewish society into an independent, diligent, and socially progressive one.

Tracing the social and political roles of technical experts and technologies in Herzl’s Zionist plan indicates that Herzl did not view technical expertise and technological systems merely as “metaphors”, in the way much of the existing literature about Herzl suggests. He considered them to be ultimate forms of social and political control. Thus, technical power in Herzl’s Zionist plan does not “overlap” or “clash” with political leadership. Rather, it is its de facto leadership.

Finally, how does the argument proposed in the article relate to the existing works in HST, STS and ANT on the social and political significance of techno-science? The case of Herzl seems to provide us with a close look at the double-edged agency of technologies which HST, STS and ANT scholars identify as both means and sites of power. It demonstrates how technological innovation makes new social and political formations available. Yet, it also shows that in doing so, technology may ascend to the point that it is no longer merely a tool in the hands of autonomous human beings, but a dominant political force that regulates and shapes collective life. It does so by generating “performative scripts”, as Yaron Ezrahi terms them, which produce human behavior, social practices and political institutions. Herzl, it appears, takes this twofold agency of technology to its extreme. In his Zionist programme, technical expertise and large-scale systems empower Jews to reinvent themselves as independent and productive people. Paradoxically, they also subject the Jewish masses to a new type of stealth regime over which they have little control.