You can tell a lot about someone’s politics by the way in which they quote Michael Gove. Anti-democratic supporters of technocracy tend only to repeat the first part of what Gove said on the eve of the Brexit referendum: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.” This half-quote is often repeated sneeringly to dismiss the knuckle dragging unwashed masses who dare to not, as it were, “trust the science” (by which, by the way, they mean “trust the experts”). The unspoken message behind the sneer is that we – the university-educated technocrats know what is best for you… even when we demonstrably don’t.
In any case, that is not what Gove said. The full statement was: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” And in the aftermath of the worst financial crash in living memory, Gove was far from the only person expressing such sentiments. The Queen of England, for example, had famously asked the priesthood at the London School of Economics why nobody had seen it coming. To which they could only look at the floor, shuffle their feet awkwardly and mumble something about black swans. The truth though, was that many people on the outside or on the fringes of the neoclassical economics clerisy had seen it coming and had given plenty of warning. But they had been ignored because – far more important than the public interest – the clerisy understood that admitting they were wrong meant losing their status and especially their monopoly on research funding.
It is not only economists who put their own financial gain ahead of the public interest. On the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK and the USA were regarded as the best prepared states in the world, with a public health apparatus second to none. And yet, when the novel coronavirus arrived, the computer models proved to be next to useless, the protective equipment inadequate and occasionally dangerous and the planning (for influenza) largely unfit for purpose. Thousands of people died unnecessarily due to a lack of facilities to provide care – resulting in infected patients being sent to care homes where the most vulnerable people lived. Meanwhile the behavioural psychologists in the government’s “Nudge Unit” used manipulation where straight talking was required – for example, telling people that masks don’t work to cover for the fact that there weren’t enough masks for frontline healthcare workers. Like the economists before them, the public health technocracy proved to be self-interested grafters who only pursued that part of the public interest which did not conflict with their monopoly on research and contract funding.
More immediately, when the dust finally settles from the Biden Administration’s appallingly incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions must surely be asked about the estimated $2.2 trillion spent on supposedly building a nation which melted away like a sandcastle before a rising tide. As Malcom Kyeyune at the tinkzorg website puts it:
“In very real terms, Afghanistan turned into a testbed for every single innovation in technocratic PMC governance, and each innovation was sold as the next big thing that would make previous, profane understandings of politics obsolete. In Afghanistan ‘big data’ and the utilization of ever expanding sets of technical and statistical metrics was allowed to topple old stodgy ideas of dead white thinkers such as Sun Tzu or Machiavelli, as ‘modern’ or ‘scientific’ approaches to war could have little to learn from the primitive insights of a pre-rational order. In Afghanistan, military sociology in the form of Human Terrain Teams and other innovative creations were unleashed to bring order to chaos. Here, the full force of the entire NGO world, the brightest minds of that international government-in-waiting without a people to be beholden to, were given a playground with nearly infinite resources at their disposal. There was so much money sloshing around at the fingertips of these educated technocrats that it became nearly impossible to spend it all fast enough; they simply took all of those countless billions of dollars straight from the hands of ordinary Americans, because they believed they had a right to do so.
“Their spectacular failure on every conceivable level now brings us to the true heart of the matter. Western society today is openly ruled by a managerial class. Where kings once claimed a divine right to rule, and the Bolsheviks of old claimed a right to rule as messiahs of a future kingdom on this earth (bearing a conspicuously strong resemblance to a very old tradition of messianic Christianity with the serial numbers filed off, by the way) the technocrats of today base their claims to lordship not necessarily on the idea of the democratic will of the people, but on the historical inevitability of technocracy as such… Our managerial leaders deserve to rule us, because managerialism as a world ethos is the only means of effecting functional rule in the context of a modern, international, post-national, information driven, knowledge economy, rules-based… well, you probably already know all the familiar buzzwords beloved by this class of people. Kings ruled in the epoch of monarchies, because only kings could rule, or at least so they all claimed… And just like the kings of old, our technocrats at one point claimed (and even enjoyed) a form of quasi-magical power in the eyes of their peasantry; a view once commonly shared that they could use the very thing that made them rightful rulers – science, logic, rationality, data – to lay on hands, cure ills, and improve society.
“Put plainly: managers, through the power of managerialism, were once believed to be able to mobilize science and reason and progress to accomplish what everyone else could not, and so only they could secure a just and functional society for their subjects, just as only the rightful kings of yore could count on Providence and God to do the same thing. At their core, both of these claims are truly metaphysical, because all claims to legitimate rulership are metaphysical. It is when that metaphysical power of persuasion is lost that kings or socialists become ‘bourgeois’, in Schmitt’s terms. They have to desperately turn toward providing proof, because the genuine belief is gone. But once a spouse starts demanding that the other spouse constantly prove that he or she hasn’t been cheating, the marriage is already over, and the divorce is merely a matter of time, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.”
The speed with which – to give Godwin an early outing – the Taliban had only to kick in the door for the whole rotten edifice to come crashing down, may be a very public example of “… organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong,” – in this case, the military contractors and the nation building NGOs – but the same kind of graft can be found everywhere once you begin to look.
In the somewhat esoteric heights of nuclear fusion research – a field which, quite clearly requires a degree of expertise shared by a tiny fraction of the people on Planet Earth – you might hope that the greater good of every living thing on the planet at risk from climate change would take far greater priority than grubby considerations about securing public funding. But no. As Steven Krivit’s documentary ITER, The Grand Illusion shows, the managerial beneficiaries of nuclear fusion research have deliberately and systematically conned governments into funding something very different to that which is being promised. From a host of TED talks, Royal Institution lectures, tech media coverage and government committee hearings, politicians and public alike have been misled into spending billions of dollars, euros and pounds on what they think is going to be the world’s first prototype fusion power station. The claim being that for an input of 50MW the reactor will generate 500MW. This though is a sleight of hand, as this definition only refers to the fusion reaction within the reactor (but not the 300MW of electricity required to run the reactor itself). Nor were the public or the politicians informed that the 500MW output was of thermal heat not electrical power – by the time the heat has been transferred to steam to drive turbines to generate electricity, it is doubtful that this ultra-expensive experiment will have generated any net energy at all.
This pursuit of state funding above all else is a design feature of neoliberalism, not a bug. Of course, you would need heavily rose-tinted glasses to pretend that in-house public bodies were true champions of the public interest. But at least in an earlier age those bodies were subject to public oversight. And back in the day, our governments were not made up of cloned SPADs but consisted of a fair number of people who had met a wage bill or had worked on the factory floor. Neoliberalism promised us a small – low-tax – state. What it gave us was a weak state; no cheaper to run but increasingly incapable of holding the so-called experts to account. And those “experts” soon sought to convince us that their self-interest existed for our benefit.
When “trust the science” – the very opposite of how science is meant to be done – becomes no more than a euphemism for “don’t take my grant/contract funding away,” then as Kyeyune says, it can’t be long before technocracy itself must face a public reckoning. Indeed, the UK vote to leave the European Union, the US election of Donald Trump and the rise of Eastern European nationalist populism might well be the early exchanges in that reckoning. And the unfolding debacle in Afghanistan can only serve to speed the process. Because, as neoliberalism implodes, the question of the management of expertise will be central to the politics that emerges from the ashes.
The battleground for the future will have to involve some serious consideration to how we might once again establish democratic oversight and control over “the experts” to prevent the kind of corporate welfare dependence that so many have become accustomed to abusing in recent decades. Do we need experts? Yes, of course. But do we want self-interested bodies of experts with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong? Absolutely not.
As you made it to the end…
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