Capitalism and “Technocracy”: Past and Present

“Technocracy” is the word of the hour. All eyes are on the “technocrats” Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi, who as of January and February of this year have been charged with the task of restoring prosperity in their respective countries. On the Yale-educated economist and former chair of the Fed depends the fate of the split 50-50 Senate and the prospects of the Democrats in 2022. Meanwhile, the MIT-educated economist and former chair of the ECB heads a national unity government that will access the largest part of Next Generation EU funds of any state.

Both situations put to rest the intuitive assumption that pits “technocracy” against “populism” as alternating forms of bourgeois government. We find instead that the close combination of the two is the latest pattern. Yellen was seen as a respectable pick by the Sanders Democrats, who are now junior partners of the Biden administration, with the standard-bearer himself of so-called “democratic socialism” heading up the Senate Budget Committee. Draghi’s cabinet has as its two main props the “populists” of the M5S and the Lega.

Commonly understood to mean “rule by experts,” notions of “technocracy” have played a role in capitalist ideology in different times and places. Not much of a discerning sense is needed to ask: expertise in what? A survey of the word’s use is a history of its passage from the natural and applied sciences to the social sciences.

To say “expertise” is to pose the question of students and education. “Technocracy” is thus intimately linked with the problems of the student movement and the field of education: access, content, the struggle between correct and incorrect ideas, knowledge versus falsification, the indispensability of specialized knowledge, the need for worker control over specialists, the conditions for the development of worker-specialists, and so on.

Once presumed to refer to the expertise of engineers, the term has instead been synonymous for quite a while, as noted by one 2020 study, with the “expertise” of economists, the salesmen of the capitalist class. [1] This was the case, for example, in the struggle between “technocrats” and “dinosaurs” in Mexico’s ruling PRI in the 80s and 90s, and more generally in bourgeois politics across a large part of Latin America across several decades. In Europe, adding a further criterion that “technocrats” must come from outside the existing party framework, the term describes, for example, the governments of Monti in Italy (2011-13) and Papademos in Greece (2011-12).

To approach the question of the significance of “technocracy” during the imperialist stage of capitalism as a whole, and to consider the particular roles these notions might play today, we must take a step into the sphere of ideas, without however forgetting the ultimate derivation of all ideas from economic facts. Behind every word in politics, one must seek out and determine the class interests reflected by that word.

The Dreams of Unemployed Engineers

Starting with “technocracy” as a proper name, the early 1930s in the US—like the present, a time of capitalist crisis—witnessed the faddish prominence of a “technocracy movement.” This was influenced by the early ideas of Thorstein Veblen, who argued for the passing of power from businessmen to engineers, and was led by Howard Scott, who was associated briefly with the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The trend had first emerged as a small grouping of intellectuals in the years following World War I. In a letter written to The Nation in 1932, William H. Smyth claimed to have coined the term in 1919, defining it as “the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers.”[2]

The movement drew influence from the 19th-century utopian socialist Saint-Simon, whose own appeals to science and industry were linked to a critique of bourgeois society at a time when the French Revolution had triumphed, but the modern working class was only still coming into existence. As a young man, Auguste Comte, the founder of the reactionary philosophy of positivism,[3] worked as Saint-Simon’s secretary.

Though similar in form, such an ideological inclination obviously had a different class content in the 1930s US. Here, the technocracy movement was the confused expression of technical-scientific workers, products of large-scale industry, who had been hit by the Great Depression yet remained opposed to the Marxist outlook.

As an instance of the mediocrities of the dominant countries being taken up with great enthusiasm in the semicolonial world, the texts of the technocracy movement were translated and widely disseminated in China. They served to reinforce the positions of the reactionary philosopher Hu Shih against other schools and also influenced the views of a founder of the China Democratic League who authored a work titled “Expert Politics.”

Some proponents of the technocracy movement lauded the New Deal as an example of technocratic statesmanship. However, as noted by the principal monograph on the topic, the movement “had little direct influence on the politics of the New Deal years. Nor has it influenced subsequent American thought to any lasting extent.” Rather than an extension of the short-lived fad of the early 1930s, the trend we might call “technocratic” liberalism today reflects how in bourgeois journalism and bourgeois political science “the label ‘technocrat’ has come to be generally applied to the economy’s technical elite.” [4]

The Post-WW2 World

References to the importance of technical expertise can be found in the rhetoric of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the 1960s. For example, in his 1962 Yale commencement speech, while discussing the views of bankers, the Fed, and his administration on the “endlessly complicated” question of inflation, JFK stated, “The problems of fiscal and monetary policies in the sixties as opposed to the kinds of problems we faced in the thirties demand subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.” As opposed to the “grand warfare of rival ideologies,” JFK presented an image of the “practical management of a modern economy”: “not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.”

Earlier in 1961, Hannah Arendt wrote,

“Even though the difficulties standing in the way to a solution of the predicament of mass poverty are still enormous, there exists today the very legitimate hope that the advancement of the natural sciences will open, in a not too distant future, possibilities of dealing with these economic matters on technical grounds outside of all political considerations.”[5]

On the other side of the Atlantic at the same time, a preeminent European example of “technocracy” was well underway. Reaching beyond the personnel of the Falange, the leaders of Francoist Spain formed what was called a “government of the technocrats,” composed of economists who belonged to Opus Dei. In 1959, they adopted a National Plan of Economic Stabilization whose principal author was a self-described “pragmatic liberal” who had studied at the London School of Economics, worked for the Generalitat de Catalunya during the civil war, and now counted on good relations with the IMF and the World Bank. With North American protection and the services of the “technocrats,” the fascist regime would give itself another two decades of life.

In this brief and necessarily schematic survey of “technocracy,” we have seen the following class phenomena: 19th-century French utopian socialism, the Depression-era dreams of unemployed engineers, various bourgeois elements in semifeudal semicolonial China, the liberalism of the Cold War, and Francoist Spain on the cusp of modernization. The lesson is that in each case the specific class interests behind the idea must be identified.

The “Technocratic” Liberalism of the Present

Returning to Yellen, the US Democratic Party, and the “technocracy” of our present—what is the concrete object named by the word here? The appeal to expertise here is only one among a collection of motifs.

In the sphere of domestic policy, the liberal bourgeoisie advances a program of moderate reforms. It is all the better for it if experts on “inequity” and “disadvantage” who argue for and implement this program have “lived experience” they can draw on as people of color from working class and/or immigrant backgrounds. Identity and expertise are used as fig-leaves to cover up the milquetoast politics of the liberal bourgeoisie. On the question of labor, the first hundred days saw the redirection of the NLRB. In the sphere of foreign policy, the liberal bourgeoisie is expansionist: it seeks to defend US imperialism’s spheres of influence against all rivals.

Thus, there is peaceful coexistence between “technocracy” and “populism.” The Secretary of the Treasury and the Senate Budget chair both know their roles in the script. Deploy the experts, channel the grassroots, and repeat. If the economic and political crisis deepens, a realignment may be due. However, it is an observable fact that junior partners in coalitions rarely prosper. In the Madrid regional election last month, Bernie’s counterparts in the Spanish State—Podemos—relearned this old lesson and spectators waved goodbye to Pablo Iglesias, a headliner in the global political cycle opened after 2007-09. Elsewhere, the far-right Brothers of Italy, the single party in the Italian parliament opposed to Draghi, prepares specifically for the aggravation of the crisis.

Contrary to reformists of various types who have seized on the problem of “technocracy” and contributed to its hypertrophy precisely in order to propose the renewal of bourgeois democracy—see Habermas, Mouffe, the theorists of the EU’s “democratic deficit,” etc.­—the immediate problem is not “technocracy,” but the democracy of the capitalist class which is equivalent to its dictatorship. The immediate choice is socialism or barbarism.

[1] The Technocratic Challenge to Democracy, Routledge, 2020

[2] “American technocracy and Chinese response: Theories and practices of Chinese expert politics in the period of the Nanjing Government, 1927-1949,” 2015, Technology in Society

[3] There is a close relationship between “technocracy” and positivism. Positivism treats science as a system of conventions and symbols that can provide some level of measurability and description to the world. It takes scientific theories as true insofar as they are practically useful, while considering the real essence of phenomena ungraspable. Zbigniew Brzezinski, counselor to LBJ and advisor to Carter, typified the positivist “technocratic” attitude in the following statement: “The increasing ability to reduce social conflicts to quantifiable and measurable dimensions reinforces the trend toward a more pragmatic approach to social problems.”

[4] Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900-1941, University of California Press, 1977

[5] Thinking Without a Banister, Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975, Hannah Arendt, 2005