Sunday, 13 November 2011

All hail our new philosopher kings!

The governance model du jour appears to be “technocracy”:

Another response involves the surgical removal of elected leaders in Greece and Italy and their replacement with technocratic experts, trusted within the EU to pass economic reforms deemed appropriate by policymakers in Berlin, the bloc’s top paymaster, and at EU headquarters in Brussels. Europe this week prised open the lid of the dustbin of history to accommodate Mr Papandreou, Greece’s Socialist prime minister since October 2009, and Mr Berlusconi, the billionaire who has dominated Italian politics since 1994.

As we saw with the bureaucratic fury at Mr Papandreou’s plan for a referendum, Europe’s leaders have lost confidence in the choices that the people might make – democratic solutions are rejected something even the pro-Europe FT sees as momentous:

The sidelining of elected politicians in the continent that exported democracy to the world was, in its way, as momentous a development as this week’s debt market turmoil. In effect, eurozone policymakers have decided to suspend politics as normal in two countries because they judge it to be a mortal threat to Europe’s monetary union.

Yet the appeal to the expert in times of crisis is not new – indeed, the manner in which we are governed increasingly reflects a mistrust of the elected official (and an abject loathing of the idea of popular democracy through referendums or other participatory models). The ‘Man in Whitehall’ – or his equivalent in Brussels and in your local town hall – really does know best.

Technocracy’s origins lie – like so many of the slightly scary and mostly illiberal ideas of government – in the years between the two great wars of the twentieth century. At first it was a slightly cranky idea promoted by a self-educated engineer called Howard Scott that drew on the ideas of Thorstein Veblen (who is most remembered for coining the term “conspicuous consumption”). Veblen proposed a society and economy managed by a ‘soviet of engineers’:

As a matter of course, the powers and duties of the incoming directorate will be of a technological nature, in the main if not altogether; inasmuch as the purpose of its coming into control is the care of the community's material welfare by a more competent management of the country's industrial system.

In the US technocracy was swept away by the ‘New Deal’ and FDR’s National Recovery Administration – those almost fascist institutions of American recovery. Yet the idea of government by expert has never departed, we remain captivated by the idea that we can with the help of the wisest and brightest plan a better society. Here Naomi Klein advocates planning as the way to address an identified environmental crisis:

In addition to reversing the thirty-year privatization trend, a serious response to the climate threat involves recovering an art that has been relentlessly vilified during these decades of market fundamentalism: planning. Lots and lots of planning.

Once again we turn to the philosopher kings:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.

Great men can solve our problems but only if they are freed from having to pander to the demos – to the rabble, the swinish multitude, to ordinary men and women. Such is the mission of Europe today – government by central banker, administration by academic economist and rule by the bureaucrat. We have rediscovered the District Commissioner – no longer florid of face, swagger stick under the arm but now besuited by Armani, trained in the great institutions of governance, silver-haired, multi-lingual and international in perspective.

Twenty-first Century technocracy is government by such men – unelected, disdainful of democracy and charming of manner. We the people watch helpless as they slide smoothly from commission to cabinet, from governor’s mansion to state house and from academic sinecure to mahogany boardroom table. These are our philosopher kings riding to save us from the disaster of the market’s chaos and democracy’s failure.

At some point we will get a say – the new philosopher kings will permit this. But will it be the exercise of power or a sop to the idea of democracy, a fig leaf to cover the triumph of the technocrat?

And do these people really know better? Were they not in charge before it all went wrong?



Anonymous said...

And it seems the Italians have been denied an election come what may form 18 months.

Angry Exile said...

I for one welcome our new ECB Overlords.

Anonymous said...

Why do elected politicians allow it to come to this? What is in it for them in ceding power to these technocrats. They end up with nothing.