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.