The Problem of the Technocrats

This cartoon has been making the rounds, especially of many of my liberal and progressive friends who are both dismayed and very angry at the results of the recent U.S. presidential election:

The cartoon pokes at populism — the notion that, somehow, it makes sense for passengers to vote on who flies a plane — and in favor of technocratic elitism. You want a trained, skilled, experienced pilot to fly a plane. That improves the chances that you will actually get to where you are going and not die along the way.

It turns government into a set of specialized technical skills, best wielded by those with extensive training and education. People who have been prepared to govern.

There’s a word for this, or there used to be: Aristocracy.

This points to the limit of our technocratic thinking and our technocratic vision. Passengers on an airplane aren’t active participants in flying the plane, they do not debate where that plane is going or what route it should take to get there, what kind of amenities should be available in flight. They are mere consumers who pay for a product — “Fly me to Chicago! Can I have an extra bag of peanuts?”

Unwittingly, such thinking strips off the democratic pretense to technocratic politics. You don’t get a say in what the state does for you or to you, you merely consume what the state produces and must trust all those the state hires to do their jobs.

Again, there was a word for this kind of government, that compels trust in and obedience to those specifically born and trained for it: Aristocracy.

This has, for more than a century, been a problem with mass democratic governance. Either you believe in the process, at which point the outcomes of that process are uncertain, or you believe in right outcomes, at which point actual democratic processes are a hindrance or inconvenience because the will of the people in whose name all modern states are created and exist gets in the way. Technocratic elitism has, since the 1890s, been combined with a process designed to carefully manage democratic outcomes. In return, the “masses” were promised material comfort and economic security. After WWII, Western elites doubled down on this approach when it became all-too-clear to them that mass politics begot fascism, Naziism, and Bolshevism.

Better to turn people into passive consumers of expert government than risk their actual participation.

If we want to continue using the metaphor of the cartoon, then we also have to admit — the technocrats can’t fly this plane anymore either. Neoliberalism has delivered little but insecurity and fear, and the technocratic elite — our aristocracy, if you will — no longer know what they are doing, where they are going, or how to get there.

That too is the fate of aristocracies. Even ones built on education and experience.

Which means the ride is going to be bumpy one. Dangerous, even. That too is human. Only in a Hegelian sense — competition between grand ideas about human flourishing — did history come to and end in 1989. We are likely reverting to our very human norm in which the conflict between passions and personalities becomes what history is. The struggle to use ideology to organize communities and states to improve humanity and the human condition, while long-ached for, was likely only a temporary thing, an anomaly, an aberration, as strange as the accidental mass-wealth of the mid 20th century.

The truth is, we don’t know where we’re going, how to get there, or even what we are doing much of the time. We only think we do.

A Management Problem

This … disgusts me:

What if you lived in a world where every kid got tested for potential depression when they were in elementary school? This video, from Binghamton University, describes new research on how we’d do it.

The researchers created a test that’s designed to determine whether children of depressive parents will also suffer from depression. So the researchers took children of depressed mothers and showed them pictures of people expressing different emotions. Based on previous research, Binghamton University psychology researcher Brandon Gibb and his colleagues believe that children whose pupils dilate when they see a sad face are more prone to depression. That’s because pupil dilation is an empathy response. [Emphasis mine — CHF]

Now, aside from utilitarian objection of asking already overloaded teachers, social workers, child protection people, police, and so forth, to do more — and to do work they simply are not trained or competent to do — I have one real simple problem with this idea.

It turns something which demonstrates compassion and care for others into a problem. A diagnosis.

And the machinery that will roar into action in order to deal with this “problem” — for this turns empathy into a problem to be solved — will be about as kind and compassionate as every other institutional response to the truly human. Which is to say, it will at best be callous. At worst, deeply  and brutally cruel.

Humanity already has enough problems valuing empathy and compassion. We like to claim we do, but we don’t, not really. (Yes, the Upland, California, I grew up in may have been a egregious example of a place and a people who really did not value these things.) We tend to abuse and brutalize those who feel anything, or feel anything more, than they are supposed to.

And don’t tell me that an empathy reaction as a sign of possible future depression isn’t going to problematized, and those who respond in this very human way won’t be somehow stigmatized. Because that’s what our institutions do best — they brutalize and marginalize and stigmatize the weakest and most vulnerable. Because they create the weakest and most vulnerable.

I know some good progressive-slash-liberal out there thinks this is a really swell idea. A compassionate idea designed to reduce or prevent future suffering. The problem is, progressivism-slash-liberalism, in nearly all its guises, has striven to reduce human caring to a scientifically regimented and guided profession, to be done only by trained professionals. Because actual human feeling gets in the way of properly managing human beings.

Or of being properly managed.

The progressive view is a handmaiden to neoliberalism, which reduces (or is trying mightily to reduce) all human relationships to commercial transactions. They empower each other, though progressivism gets the raw end of the deal, as neoliberalism doesn’t need the nonsense progressives peddle in order to turn everything into a commercial exchange, measurable and valued solely by the market. But this doesn’t stop progressives, who at heart all want a well-managed society. The care we have for each other cannot be measured or monetized or regulated unless its done solely (or mainly) by caring professionals — doctors, teachers, social workers, administrators (and in this ugly scheme of things, pastors). Which is why people should not be allowed to care for each other. That’s the purview of professionals, and only they can be trusted to actually care.

The rest of us exist only to be beaten or medicated or propagandized into a passive and consumptive stupor.

If there is an emphatic reason I support something akin to The Benedict Option it is that we who are called by Jesus to follow are also called to create an “economy” in which money plays no role in determining value — of what is exchanged, or of ourselves, as human beings and children of God. In which we care for and support each other as human beings without regard to the market or the state. That our very human emotions, our weaknesses and our frailties and our brokenness, matter.

That we are more than things to be managed.