The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Technocracy, Populism, and the New Ideology
Ivan Kenneally - 03/06/09

The basic political premise of techno-politics is that the classic question regarding competing claims to rule has been decisively answered: instead of Plato’s philosopher king we get its emasculated modern descendant, the rational bureaucrat. The ascendancy of techno-politics also assumes that human behavior has been rendered docile-the victory of administrative science over practical statesmanship is based on an exaggerated version of Montesquieu’s prediction that a turn to commercial pursuits would usher in a general “softening of mores.” The turn to benign interests is a turn away from the messier and more obviously political questions that involve the identification of a controversial good and the contest among citizens vying for honor. The incoherence within the technocratic view of political life is that it simultaneously denies a politics based on the love of honor but showers honor upon those who claim a greater share of reason. In contradistinction to honor politics, the rule of management science presupposes men that are easily manageable, subject to domestication, and satisfied by the appropriate calculus of interests. If politics is nothing but the deliberative regulation of benign interest, then the simple rule of administrative competence might actually suffice. However, there are also men who are driven by more than merely interest—they also want honor and a recognition of their individual importance, and ironically enough, this includes the technocrat. For example, it would be impossible to describe the debate regarding abortion as a mere clash of interests—that would not account for the fierce, sometimes violent defense each side offers of its position and corresponding worldview. Human beings are spirited, or have what the ancient Greeks called thumos, that inclination to angrily demand the honor that is owed them and recognized in the political theater. Prudence and genuine public debate are politically necessary because politics is more than the pedestrian management of competing interests—-it the dangerous juggling of angry claims to be praised and blamed.

Obama’s therapeutic populism actually runs into similar difficulties. The problem already discussed is that the rejection of prudence coupled with the honor especially accorded to technocratic elites repudiates the insistent egalitarianism of his populist rhetoric. However, one thing Obama’s populism has in common with his techno-politics is the view that political experience is reducible to the pursuit of tepid interests and that statesmanship is nothing but their polite superintendence. Instead of a robust conception of consent that includes searching public deliberation about the most enduring moral questions, Obama envisions a less proactive, more symbolic recognition on the part of the public that their interests are being adequately managed by the political class. When the question of competing worldviews is reduced to a collision of interests, the granting or withholding of consent becomes an innocuous affair largely carried on by thoroughly subdued beings; at the very least, this picture overlooks that consent can be given lovingly or begrudgingly. If it turns out that we are more than rational beings with interests, and that we make claims (sometimes angrily) based on honor and the need for recognition, then consent and deliberation that ignores more poignant spurs to action than mere interest will often fall short. The therapeutic aspect of Obama’s populism, especially his massaging of the people’s economic unease without extending even gentle reproach for some complicity in their own misfortunes, is a consolation prize meant to soften the blow of an emergent “administrative despotism.” In exchange for the dishonor of surrendering some considerable consent to a bevy of new expert czars, Obama offers the alternative honor of avoiding any public blame for the demotion. We are helpless but also blameless.

The effectual truth of both technocratic governance and therapeutic populism is a denial of the place that genuine disagreement about the good and individual honor have in political life. At least in its original Lockean incarnation, the egalitarian logic of a politics based upon popular consent was meant to create the appearance of evenly distributed honor thereby tempering the hostility that often arises from the many rigorous and mutually exclusive claims to it. Today, we embrace the centrality of consent to political authority but characteristically neglect the obvious complications that attach to its exercise. Differently put, we enjoy the pride that comes with having an important say in political affairs but avoid the difficulties with consent that force us to mix that pride with some reasonable measure of humility. The pride we have in the importance of our consent is not without some vanity. One could say that the political priority assigned to consent was meant to signify a departure from a politics complicated by the centrality of honor but the prideful way we insist on our consent is powerful evidence that honor still has its way.

Obama’s impressive rhetorical alchemy has consistently presented this new technocratic ideology as a pragmatic rejection of ideology itself—his politics is meant to be shorn of any moral or political commitments that invite controversy or public debate. However, the denial of a guiding worldview is a sleight of hand crafted to furtively import an ideology without the need to publicly articulate it. Political life could never be properly captured by a reduction to its merely rational components—such an abbreviation would inevitably discount the rivalry over the good that makes political commerce necessary in the first place. The technocratic denial of genuine moral ambiguity in political affairs is designed to pacify the competition for honor such ambiguity begets—what remains should be competently managed interests and a lobotomized shadow of real consent. Given the many ways in which the breakneck pace of biotechnological innovation challenges our existing moral and political paradigms, a call to serious civic deliberation on this score has never been more needful. Of course, disputation of this kind can be a tumultuous ride but for those with the heart to brave it there is much honor to be won.

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