The Technocrat’s Burden
There’s been a lot of talk about democracy hereabouts during the past month or so. And I think that’s a really cool, good thing. It’s the kind of non-topical conversation that can be hard to find in the blogosphere that the League is often fond of delving into, to its credit. We in America (and this is true for the West more generally) live in a nominal republic that takes enormous, perhaps nearly spiritual, pride in the democratic ethos that permeates throughout both political and cultural spheres. But, somewhat paradoxically, that self-assurance can at times bleed into complacency or even thoughtlessness. We don’t always necessarily know what democracy is beyond knowing it’s us; and I don’t think I’d be shocking anyone reading this to claim that, often, we hardly even know ourselves.
It’s always important to have an intimate knowledge of what democracy means, what it doesn’t mean, what it provides, what it takes away, and its more general virtues and flaws alike. The writings that make up the intellectual foundations of Western democracy are littered with exhortations that a democratic or republican people must be educated, virtuous, self-aware, engaged. These are platitudes and even clichés, yes, but they’re also true; could anyone familiar with American politics during the last decade believe otherwise? As important as this kind of introspection is for undoing the mistakes of the past and avoiding the pitfalls of the present, though, I think it’s even more important as we look to the future during this strange, precarious, and transitional moment in time.
Without boring you by going Full Mustache, technology has radically changed the boundaries that separate one system, country, society, or people from another. (In fact, “changed” is probably not the right word. Obliterated? No, not quite — look to the Middle East for proof why. How about “severely diminished”?) With these traditional boundaries so severely diminished come myriad possibilities, many inspiring optimism, even utopianism. But one of the equally important consequences of globalization has been the increased ease with which geopolitics can be understood by looking at it through a lens of transnational class.
You don’t have to buy all the New World Order, Illuminati, Alex Jones bullshit to see this at play. Anyone who follows the Eurozone, or global finance in general, can’t deny that there is indeed a class of people who are no longer constrained by legal or cultural borders.(And, in truth, it’s not necessarily so new, either: recall that Europe, before the French Revolution, was largely run by a transnational nobility.) It’s logical, inevitable, and indeed carries with it enormous potential benefits.
For the human rights community, the increasing universality of politics has been utterly essential for attempts toward systematizing and canonizing baseline standards of behavior. The unsolved climate crisis, too, is another problem that simply cannot be solved with local or even regional solutions alone. As much work as there’s left to do, the world is less unequal, less miserable, less poor, less sick, and less uneducated than it was merely decades ago. For countless people in developed and developing countries both, the enormous reach of commerce has improved their lives, increased their opportunity, and broadened their intellectual understanding.
So I’m not trying to describe a pernicious, looming evil when I write that this kind of globalization, beside doing these many good things, also stands as a genuine and confounding threat to democracy. Not inherently, not unalterably — but still. We’ve touched on the negative repercussions of this threat when we’ve talked about the riots in Greece and elsewhere. But it’s important for us to remember that, as ugly, stupid, counter-productive, and regrettable as these acts of chaos and violence have been, they’re not solely the consequence of people throwing a tantrum of having their luxurious social services paired-down or taken away. It’s very much the case that not only what these changes are, but how they’ve come about has led to such enormous, unrestrained outrage.
And while the destruction it often inspires is irrational, I don’t think the fear is as well. A profound elitism and chauvinism has permeated so much of how political, economic, and media elites have managed the EU crisis. The constant appeals for a cabal of wise, “technocratic” problem-solvers to swoop in and clean up the mess would always strike me and many others as distasteful; but it would certainly be less insulting if not for the fact that, by and large, and for reasons good and bad, the EU is the product of elites. Tsk-tsking the citizens of various European states — be they Germans who don’t want to foot a bill they were promised they’d never have to pay; or Italians, Greeks, or Spaniards who were told that increased competition and lowered wages for their labor would be compensated with easy credit and the many amenities it brings — is buck-passing in the extreme.
But rather than inspire a greater appreciation on the part of many elites for democracy (needed if for no other reason than the necessity of creating a sense of public ownership of policies when they go bad) it seems to me like more than a few Masters of the Universe have responded to the events of this year, and indeed all of the years of the financial crisis, by imagining that whatever they were doing before, they’d have to simply do more of it, but better. Most of the time I feel like this is the subtext of various ostensible mea culpas or explanations for what’s gone wrong; but in a thread yesterday, bluntobject highlighted a Karl Smith post that was breathtakingly upfront in making this argument:
As I recently told a correspondent: if we are doing our jobs right then people shouldn’t even know that technocrats exist. They should never think about us. They should think about the things they care about; their children, their friends, their love interests, their dreams. If they know about the technocracy then the technocracy has failed.
There is no doubt that these movements – OWS and the Tea Party – are a glaring sign of technocratic failure. We shouldn’t forget that as long as these movements exist. Any moment that a citizen spends thinking about taxes, the economy, lobbyists, the capitalist system, etc is a moment of their lives that we have wasted and that they will never get back.
Time is all that they have, to burn it is to burn their lives away. It is to destroy the very thing we are supposed to protect. If you keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to induce a rational blissful ignorance in your citizens then you I think your ship will always be straight.
I think this is an amazing comment in a few ways, and though I find it disturbing — even horrifying — in nearly as many, I’m also sort of inclined to commend Smith for his honesty. But while it’s clear that Smith undergirds this worldview with good intentions, the above still reads like something from an especially feverish Glenn Beck “exposé”; all of the hoary clichés of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the various half-remembered sins of the Progressive Era’s social engineers immediately rush to the front of my mind. What strikes me most, though, is Smith’s sense that engagement in the political system, that the running of our lives is, for the most of us, time “wasted.”
The implication is that Smith and his ilk — the self-styled technocrats — are little short of martyrs. Citizens are people, after all; and technocrats are people, too. If to care about the economy, taxes, capitalism, and all the sundry aspects of democratic self-governance is to waste our lives, whose lives are more wasted than the technocrats’? To Smith, it must be all the more tragic for the fact that they’re not even doing an especially good job of it! Designated as Protectors of Time, Stewards of Rational Blissful Ignorance (definition: unknown), the technocrats find themselves shipwrecked and surrounded by a crew on the verge of mutiny.
It says something that a very intelligent, generally inoffensive, and somewhat influential intellectual like Smith not only holds these beliefs in 2011, but is so comfortable expressing them in a public forum and draping them in the rhetorical garments of altruism and self-sacrifice. What it says might in some cases vary, depending on the listener; but it’s clear to me that, among other things, it proves that there’s good reason for us to talk about democracy. Those who can’t do teach — and those who can’t teach (and some who can) blog.