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The end of the technocracy

Image: Montecruz Foto

In the early 2000s an organisation I worked with, conducted a survey among Britain’s doctors.  “With the internet growing as a source of information,” they asked, “how important will it be to your practice?”  The subtlety was that they asked the first group of doctors about its value in providing them with access to clinical information, while the second group was asked about its value in providing their patients access to clinical information.  Unsurprisingly, doctors in the first group were extremely positive.  Access to searchable databases of clinical studies would allow them to provide leading edge treatment far more rapidly than if they had to wait to read journals or to attend training courses.  Doctors in the second group were a mirror image of this; viewing the internet as highly negative.  They imagined patients arriving for appointments with pages of print outs concerning the highly unlikely diseases that they had self-diagnosed, and often demanding treatments which would likely harm if not kill them.

The finding interested me because I had encountered something similar in the early 1990s when I carried out research into emergency planning for the Home Office.  The Cold War having come to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, emergency planners were desperate to reinvent themselves as agencies primarily concerned with responding to civil emergencies rather than war.  They could not, however, bring themselves to move away from the top-down military control approaches which are central to military planning.  Rather than work with local communities, with a few notable exceptions, emergency planners tended to the belief that “the civilian population” would panic in the face of an emergency and would need to be herded like sheep to bring them to safety.  The irony was that all of the academic research into disasters demonstrates that people do not panic when faced with an emergency.  Indeed – as we have seen recently with the public response to the Covid-19 crisis (and one suspects to the chagrin of the UK government) – people are for the most part (although every circus has to have its clowns) far more likely to come together in the public interest.

Christian priests regularly recite biblical texts authoritatively from the pulpit about which they themselves have doubts and which are often contradicted by the archaeological and historical evidence.  The most topical of these being the uncontentious claim that the historical Jesus is highly unlikely to have looked like the blond haired and white skinned symbolic Jesus created by Paul to be at least in part acceptable to the Roman Empire.  In a similar manner, scientists regularly speak with certainty to the public while holding, and valuing, doubt within their professions.  It turns out that wherever we look, the same phenomenon is present.  Those within a discipline are comfortable expressing doubts and uncertainties to one another.  But when they are speaking to the public they insist on claiming certainty.  It is, of course, precisely because of this that democratic societies must constantly wrestle with a question posed by Socrates.  In effect, will you choose democracy or technocracy?

Socrates posed it this way – suppose that you have to take a sea voyage through treacherous waters; would you choose a captain and crew that is representative of the public at large or would you chose hardened and experienced mariners?  If you choose the former you are clearly an idiot.  But if you choose the latter, how can you say that you support democracy?

In the early 1970s politicians were faced with a modern equivalent of Socrates’ dilemma.  The massive upswing of the post war years had come to an end.  Productivity had faltered and growth had slumped.  Government tools for addressing economic problems – particularly printing currency to invest in production – was having the opposite effect to what was intended.  Instead of growth, they generated stagflation – millions of workers lost their jobs even as prices rose out of control.  And against this backdrop came crisis events like the 1972 and 74 miners’ strikes in the UK, the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the defeat of the USA in Vietnam which combined to suggest that the western way of life was coming to an end.

Whether they intended it or whether it was simply an unintended consequence of their policies, the “Monetarist” (neoliberal) politicians who came to power in the late 1970s and early 1980s answered the question posed by Socrates by choosing technocracy – the rule by the experts.  “Out of a misplaced kindness,” the monetarists argued, “government had allowed the state to become too big and too intrusive.”  “The result,” they said, “was the stagflation which had marred a generation” – the generation which overwhelmingly voted for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

The error in this thinking was the belief that the state could somehow be “rolled back.”  That is that those who derived wealth, power and influence from their position in the burgeoning states that had grown out of the ashes of World War Two might simply pack up and spend their time gardening or fishing instead of running public life.  It was never going to happen.  Instead, the spaces which democratic government retreated from created vacuums into which a new form of government began to flow.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the most important function of state – the creation of the nation’s money supply.

In the 1970s, nobody knew who the Governor of the Bank of England or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve was.  They were mere functionaries paid to do the government’s bidding.  Today, Jerome Powell, Andrew Bailey and their recent predecessors are household names; featuring regularly in news bulletins.  Monetary policy was handed to them, to be managed by committees of technocrats who supposedly held esoteric wisdom hidden to us mere mortals.  As Charles Eisenstein put it:

“Looking down from Olympian heights, the financiers called themselves ‘masters of the universe,’ channelling the power of the god they served to bring fortune or ruin upon the masses, to literally move mountains, raze forests, change the course of rivers, cause the rise and fall of nations.”

The instrument they used was the banking system itself; allowing commercial banks to spirit currency into existence at will.  Using the financial alchemy of securities and insurances, they inflated the biggest Ponzi bubble the world had ever seen.  And when it burst in 2008, they rallied around and inflated an even bigger one.  In doing so, though, they burned through what we might call “technocratic capital” – the public belief that the claimed esoteric wisdom is real.  When the Queen of England called upon the wisest economists in the Kingdom to ask, “Why did nobody see it coming?”  She was met with evasion.  “Nobody could have seen it coming,” they answered.  But people had done; and had been excluded from the technocracy for their heresy.  Little wonder that eight years later Michael Gove gained so much traction when he exclaimed:

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

On the question of Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, Gove’s outburst corresponded to popular sentiment in the UK’s ex-industrial regions where a technocratic network of so-called anti-poverty experts had grown fat on EU and UK government funding but where, despite this largesse, poverty somehow always seemed to get worse.  Lavish EU funding there may have been; but it always ended up in the wrong pockets.

In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the economists and the bankers joined politicians, journalists and lawyers at the bottom of the public trust league; where failed technocrats end their days.  And by the beginning of 2020 with obvious signs of an economic slowdown already appearing, they looked set to take another drop down in the public’s esteem.  They were saved – for the time being – by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which allowed the technocrats in the public health sphere to burn through their technocratic capital instead.  Following the same playbook, the public health experts assured us that their models were correct and that they knew what they were doing.  And then it turned out that, no, the models were wrong after all and that what was supposed to be a plan turned out to be little more than cherry-picked science designed to cover the incompetence of the politicians.

After decades of neoliberalism, these politicians had themselves become another discredited arm of the technocracy.  Where, decades ago, Parliament included large numbers of people who had previously worked in business or industry, by the turn of the century, former “special advisors” to other politicians were the largest profession.  These are specialists in nothing more more than getting themselves elected and re-elected; and their inability to think or act coherently in the face of a real crisis exposes them for the useless eaters that they have become.

Nor can any serious thinker have respect for an establishment media which has flip-flopped its way through the biggest – largely self-inflicted – crisis in living memory.  In the bizarre realm of Establishment Medialand, a pandemic virus is afforded a political compass.  In the real world, however, as Private Eye’s “MD” puts it:

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus has just enough genetic material to multiply and spread with ruthless efficiency, but not enough for a conscience.  It can’t distinguish between Black Lives Matter protestors, white supremacist thugs or people packing onto the beach for a jolly.  Everyone the virus gets close to for long enough is fair game.”

Such are the rocks onto which what remains of establishment media credibility are dashed.  But there are far deeper reasons for the decline of the technocracy than fleeting media stories that seemed so important just yesterday but have disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle now.  While the concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands at the very top has been an ongoing concern to those of us who are aware of the systemic consequences of falling prosperity at the bottom, few understand that Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the nationalist populist right are also a consequence of this wealth inequality.  Share buybacks, corporate mergers and acquisitions and all of the other means by which the already wealthy get even wealthier also serve to exclude a proportion of those just below the top who no longer have the ability to join the elite.  That leads to the kind of simmering discontent that eventually funds politicians and political movements which seek to overthrow the old order and replace it with one more favourable to these wannabee elitists.

Add into that heady mix “The Resistance” – the sons and daughters of a university-educated metropolitan liberal class whose standard of living used to be maintained by servicing the needs of the elites (via professions like accountancy, law and medicine and through technical positions in the operation of business and commerce).  These, too are victims of a crisis which neoliberals wrongly thought could be resolved through the expansion of education.  For the last three decades we have been churning out graduates for whom no graduate level employment exists; not least because a shrinking elite has less need for their services.  And to add insult to injury, they were required to rack up vast student debts for the privilege.  For their own reasons, given the chance they, too, will tear down the technocracy.

At the very bottom are the mass of people whose living standards are seldom different and often worse to what they had been during the recessions of the 1980s.  As Stephen Young – an Ebbw Vale resident explaining why people in that town voted so heavily in favour of leaving the EU in 2016 put it:

“I’ve lived in Ebbw Vale all my life, worked in the steelworks and ran my own business for many years… This town has a new learning zone, new roads and some other EU funded projects……….it doesn’t have jobs. The steelworks at one time employed 13,000 and the mine about 800 I think. Heavy industry has gone and our town has no air pollution and heavy lorries running through it constantly, which is good, but it has no money either, little has been done to replace the jobs that were lost, we have been in austerity before the rest of the country heard of it. Recession? We think that is our way of life. We see billions spent in London and the south east, we see billions spent in Cardiff……….in comparison we, and a lot of Wales and large tranches of England are feeding off crumbs from the table.”

There speaks a true representative of the mass of people who will ultimately decide upon the way we navigate the coming collapse.  And, for the moment at least, that broad mass of people has largely sided with the thwarted elitists at the top in following the “Taking back (from the technocrats) control” and the “Make (insert the name of your country here) Great Again” message… This version of overthrowing the technocracy is unlikely to change while the sons and daughters of metropolitan liberals are limiting their ambitions to grizzling about their lack of access to top jobs.  Perhaps, though, when it finally dawns  upon everyone concerned that an increasingly energy-constrained economy can never be Made Great again – at least in terms of material wealth – and that those top-tier jobs are never coming back, a different political paradigm may emerge.  But until that day arrives, all we can say for sure is that the days of the technocracy are numbered.

As you made it to the end…

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