The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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

Part three of a symposium on the cultural impact of Obama and the New Progressivism. Read part one on economics and part two on education.

By now, the professional pundits are largely done investigating the causes of Obama’s election victory and are satisfied with the results of the many and competing autopsies performed on McCain’s necrotic campaign. Setting aside the obvious circumstantial reasons that account for the preference of the American public, including weariness from an unpopular war and impatience with an even more unpopular incumbent, the choice of Obama over McCain signified a striking prioritization of competence and populist rhetoric over political experience and military honor. In this sense, the most significant shift in the election was from a focus on the prosecution of the war to the management of the economy—Obama successfully persuaded the American people that what they needed most was not a battle hardened general but an optimistic administrator.

Moreover, Obama convinced a majority that he was the most qualified to steward them through turbulent economic times and the most likely, since he most sincerely feels their pain. McCain could never quite pull off the role of economic policy wonk and it’s too theatrically challenging for a former POW to artfully affect empathy over home foreclosures and dwindling capital gains. In short, the technocratic therapist triumphed over the honor loving soldier. During a time of economic anxiety the bureaucratic supervision of competing interests is bound to present itself as the central task of executive statesmanship just as periods of war diminish the significance of our material pursuits by highlighting the security they presuppose and the sense of mortality they distract us from. The stark brutality of war makes a mockery of the superficial comfort that comes from any mawkishly demagogic displays of empathy and the unpredictability of conflict repudiates the techno-political pretence that human affairs can be scientifically managed. War reminds us of the intractability of our deepest political problems but economic depression strikes us as technical difficulty that demands an administrative solution—it is a puzzle to be solved rather than a reminder of the permanent imperfection of human affairs. Obama appealed to an electorate that was more anxious than fearful and therefore more responsive to a therapeutic campaign than a bellicose one.

Ironically, the extraordinary success of the military surge in Iraq made Obama’s victory possible—for all his talk of revolutionary change, his electoral success depended upon some assurances of a return to political normality, the welcome expectation that the typical news cycle would once again be dominated by chatter about healthcare and retirement rather than terrorists and torture. Obama’s rousing (and even romantic) promises of hope and change belie how anticlimactic that change really is-his revolution culminates in the peaceful, administrative regulation of our more quotidian pursuits.

While the time for another post-election analysis has passed, the key ingredients in Obama’s victory, technocratic competence and therapeutic populism, provide the most illuminating portals into understanding the general orientation of our new administration. Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear that the undergirding premises of each are theoretically compatible. Obama’s populism is based on the hypertrophic satisfaction of the will of the people—he decries, however sincerely or consistently, the undermining of general consent by the overrepresentation of special interests or of the wealthy. In other words, Obama’s populism is about the protection of the ordinary man’s participation in civic life against the extraordinary advantages of minority factions armed with superior material and political resources. However, Obama’s conception of techno-politics is based on the embrace of a kind of techno-aristocracy—the hyper-educated elite with specialized politico-scientific expertise are singled out for the management of the benighted rest of us. The conspicuous contradiction embedded within Obama’s political program is between his populist lionization of consent and his technocratic diminution of it: the former presumes the prudence of ordinary common sense and the latter rejects the same common sense as radically unscientific.

It’s worth starting with Obama’s Inaugural speech to plumb the meaning of the new technocracy. One of the most telling but least commented upon lines in the speech was his promise to “restore science to its proper place.” Since he doesn’t expand upon this restoration in the remainder of the address it’s not immediately obvious what this amounts to. Of course, this at least assumes that science has been unjustly abused or neglected by the previous administration. Still, even if one concedes that now familiar straw man it still wouldn’t settle the much thornier issue of how precisely we should understand the relation between science and politics. It has been clear, though, that at least rhetorically Obama is taking his cues from the likes of Al Gore, spinning any objections to his policies as an “assault on reason” against the grain of what is scientifically demonstrable. Surely, his detractors are entitled to their views but the unambiguous authority of science itself will be the final arbiter of all political disputes.

It’s instructive to consider Obama’s defense of science in light of his more developed attack on the enervating effects of partisan politics–Obama promises to transcend the political differences between us for the sake of realizing a previously elusive common good. It’s not clear how Obama will achieve this or even if he’s capable–neither his primary nor national campaign captured the whole of American support. This is not a criticism of Obama but an observation of the stubborn recalcitrance of partisan dispute. He has consistently advocated a kind of post-political brand of governance that assumes partisan conflicts are never reflections of genuine versus spurious disagreement, are always based upon miscommunication or ideological dogmatism, and are never the result of competing worldviews that are held with deep, thoughtful conviction—of course, they are therefore never resistant to facile revision. In other words, if politics is reducible to technocratic competence then there is something peculiarly unenlightened about a clash of interests–our unshared interests seem to be little more than idiosyncratic expressions of rationally indefensible attachments. We all have rational interests and political science can unambiguously distinguish these from our irrational demands—a “special” interest is one that can’t be justified before the tribunal of scientific reason.

Obama’s populism is superficially presented as Madisonian—he doesn’t reject factions per se but only those that, to use the language of Federalist 10, are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” His impoverished view of political dispute, though, is quite a departure from Madison: Obama blithely assumes an easily won harmony of interests since their rationality makes for easily identifiable common ground; in a world of homogenous beings with purely rational desires political gridlock between adversaries is an abrogation of practical logic. Radically autonomous beings animated by nothing other than rational interest can live like socially gregarious and dependent beings if their highly particular and erotic longings are replaced by highly uniform and domesticated wants. Moreover, at least from the perspective of consent and a share in governance, Obama’s own favored special interest is the one that effectively monopolizes the market of reason, the technocratic class.

For our new President, the “proper place” of science is beyond the murky waters of political compromise–it must be unfettered from old fashioned moral strictures and the bumbling roadblocks to progress that are the consequence of political restraint. Just as he denies in the speech that there are any potential tensions between our ideals and the practical demands of ensuring our security in an often less than ideal world, he simply rejects that there are any moral or political complexities born out of technological innovation that might justify some measure of political prudence, or even the admonishment of science. Obama’s view is not merely an oversimplification of the relation between science and politics, and consequently of science’s “proper place,” but a willful ignorance of the lessons regarding the dangers of a science divorced from prudence the twentieth century has provided. For Obama, scientific and moral progress are so inexorably linked that the success of the former couldn’t possibly forestall the virtue of the latter—the march towards our scientific liberation from the unwieldy shackles of nature is virtue itself.

The real danger of Obama’s technocratic administration is the habit to tendentiously recast serious moral and political debates as misguided arguments about plainly observable scientific fact. Our most complex and tempestuous moral issues today are biotechnological—these not only live in the often dark interstices between science and morality but also demand a serious reflection on the limits of human nature and the natural conditions necessary for human flourishing. Of course, such philosophical dilemmas involve science and require the assistance of scientists to draw the line between what is and isn’t technologically feasible and medically safe. Nevertheless, questions regarding the limits of science and the limits of human nature are not themselves solely or even primarily scientific questions—in fact, science in general had proven remarkably tone deaf to the bioethical implications of its own innovation.

It might even be the case that the fundamental premises that animate science tend to obscure rather than illuminate the moral context within which science operates. Modern science is based on the rational control of nature and asymptotic progress but morality requires a humble recognition of human limitation and the stubborn persistence of pain and imperfection. The deepest motivation of science is to overcome our mortality and morality is based not just upon its acceptance but embrace. Mill often argued that both scientific and moral investigation share the centrality of dispassionate objectivity but neither the pursuit of scientific truth nor lived moral experience is a dispassionate affair. Likewise, the technocrat is a partisan of truth, progress, and the worthlessness of nature—even if he is objective about the findings of science he is considerably less so regarding the defense of science itself. Much of the problem regarding political and moral debate about science today is the insincere or unreflective posture that science is above political and moral commitment.

The French philosopher Chantal Delsol has written memorably about the often suppressed implications of the substitution of technocratic judgment for old fashioned moral prudence. In Icarus Fallen, Delsol argues that the central delusion of technocratic competence is that the “so-called rational neutrality of technocratic government” allows it to remain “neutral, or innocuous, with regard to values.” However, Delsol contends that “there are very few decisions concerning the general interest that are unrelated to underlying conceptions of existence.” Delsol denies that questions of political means are separable from the moral priorities of the community within which they arise: “All these questions relate to values; that is, they draw upon different ideas of the good, and, ultimately, different notions of happiness.” Techno-politics, therefore, is begotten from a reductionist account of political choice: “Every political act is a choice that calls for the concrete manifestation of certain references, even if these references are neither named nor conceptualized” Moreover, techno-politics is also based upon an abstract caricature of political cognition: while we rely upon our intellect as a “repository of knowledge” for the act of political deliberation, our intellect alone is incapable of exhaustively comparing all the competing values any such deliberation presupposes.

From the perspective of the technocrat, these underlying conceptions, or worldviews, are either the remnants of a now obsolete pre-scientific view of human affairs or belong to questions of ultimate purposes or ends that, thanks to modern liberalism, are easily compartmentalized and separated from the questions of political means. However, while technocracy “considers all worldviews obsolete and superfluous” it only operates under ignorant “pretenses to certitude” and the “guise of science.” In fact, the consequence of technocratic governance is the establishment of a “clandestine ideology” that imports the “rule of hidden particularities” through the back door. Techno-politics, however furtively, always “favors one worldview over the others” and since it falsely proclaims both its own neutrality and indubitable scientific support, it inevitably devolves into a “politics without tolerance.” Rather than avoiding debate regarding the fundamental questions, this “vision-less politics” actually “cuts short debate about the future” and “deprives itself of a pluralistic consideration of worldviews” while naively (and sometimes despotically) attempting to achieve a “pluralism without concrete plurality.” This is why Delsol argues that techno-politics “always goes hand in hand with a politics of special interests: besides offering a specific worldview it is incapable of articulating or even acknowledging, it can only speak the impoverished language of interests. Ultimately, real decision-making necessarily involves an element of what Delsol call “aspiration,” or the desire to “create a better society” that can only be cultivated and understood in light of a worldview that houses our deeper preferences and values.

Despite its openly populist tendencies, the rise of technocracy is hostile to the prudence and good sense of the common man. Moreover, despite his incapacity to appreciate the greatness of the statesman, the technocrat is vulnerable to becoming intoxicated by his own superior wisdom, as confirmed by statistical science. Unlike in aristocracy, the technocrat’s claim to rule is not based on questionable claims regarding excellence or tradition; the technocrat’s superiority is evidenced by reason itself. It seems quite plausible that a degenerate variety of magnanimity, contemptuous of the people and quick to anger, would be the deformed progeny of technocratic leadership. The technocrat is quick to advocate a science of administrative means but has no recourse to a comparable science of ends; the distinction between scientific fact and subjective value drains the meaningfulness of moral discourse from public life. Interestingly enough, the technocrat is even more immoderate and peculiarly self-righteous when discussing moral ends precisely because, in the absence of rational demonstration, frustration easily gives way to moral indignation. Obama often mentions his opponents’ dissenting views and acknowledges their right to hold them but also clearly marginalizes their disagreement by condescendingly pointing out their shocking irrationality.

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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