Twilight of the Technocrats?

Technocratic liberalism prides itself on having no ideology to speak of — which is itself the most dogmatic ideology of them all.

Hillary Clinton speaks at the University of Louisville in April 2010. McConnell Center / Flickr

Last September, Politico published a long-form feature on Elan Kriegel, Hillary Clinton’s analytics wizard and the principal architect of her campaign’s leviathan data strategy.

One of the highest-paid staff at Clinton HQ in Brooklyn, Kriegel developed a devilishly complex algorithm called “Ada” that reportedly guided all of the campaign’s most critical strategic decisions — from which states to send the candidate and her surrogates to where and when to run ads and invest resources. So panoptic was Ada’s reach that it frequently overrode the judgment and local knowledge of Democratic activists on the ground.

As the election finally reached its denouement, Clinton’s big data algorithm was supposed to be her secret weapon. Instead, just like her candidacy, it proved to be a historic dud.

In the years to come, will the mode of politics that produced both suffer the same fate?

The Crisis of Technocratic Liberalism

Even the most powerful algorithm cannot compensate for the flawed assumptions of its programmers. If the Ada fiasco is an indictment of data-driven politics, it is also a reflection of the values — and deficiencies — of the technocratic liberal ethos that spawned it.

More than perhaps any waged before, the Clinton campaign invested an inexhaustible faith (not to mention considerable financial resources) in the wisdom and effectiveness of experts, its upper echelons dominated by a generation of Democratic insiders steeped in Third Way thinking and analysis.

In word and affect, it spoke the language of white-collar professionals in New Democratic coastal heartlands and showed open disdain for some of the party’s traditional, less affluent constituencies and their aspirations. It eschewed the rhetoric of populist contestation in favor of bipartisan détente with factions in the Republican old guard and gleefully chased the votes of suburban conservatives. It publicly courted both Wall Street and Silicon Valley and proudly touted the support of their leading viceroys. It emphasized personality and qualification, judgment and temperament, over ideology. And had it prevailed as expected, it would have governed accordingly.

In the sum total of its posturing, strategy, messaging, and wounded bemusement in defeat, the Clinton campaign represented the apogee of the liberal center’s technocratic vision in all its shimmering hubris and ultimate, self-defeating futility.

And its loss has hardly been the only one of its kind. Across the advanced capitalist world, formations of both the center-right and center-left have been successively battered and handed a string of defeats at the ballot box.

Last June, British voters rejected the elite script and opted to withdraw from the European Union. Less than a month after Trump’s election, Italy’s unelected caretaker prime minister was forced to resign after somehow failing to persuade voters that they should weaken democracy. In Austria, center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen only narrowly beat back his far-right opponent, Norbert Hofer, and opinion polls continue to give Marine Le Pen a very real shot at becoming the next president of France.

Yet far from reflecting soberly on this near rout, or the failures that may have produced it, devotees of technocratic liberalism have rallied one after another to fortify their orthodoxies.

Senior Democrats like Nancy Pelosi insist that neither policy nor strategy need change and refuse to budge an inch to the economic left. Centrist dogmatists like Jonathan Chait earnestly cling to the exhausted maxims of the Obama era, even as its modest legacy crumbles before their very eyes. Tony Blair, apparently unchastened by any sense of shame, has mused about returning to British politics.

Finding themselves suddenly cornered, liberal technocrats have increasingly lashed out at mass democracy itself, blaming it for Trump’s victory and Brexit, and advocating its enfeeblement as a solution.

Reflecting this mood with unrivaled zealotry was Foreign Policy’s James Traub, who declared last July: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses.” Casting contemporary politics as a struggle not between values or interests, but between “the sane” and “the mindlessly angry,” Traub called for a new centrist project consisting of breakaway chunks of the right and left to defend “pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides.”

All of these examples suggest a political project in profound crisis. But they also offer clues as to its underlying assumptions — and its deepest flaws.

The Technocratic Fallacy

What matters is what works,” Tony Blair proclaimed in 1998, neatly encapsulating the technocratic spirit of the new liberal center (or “Third Way”). Behind the phrase “what works” we find both the essence of this vision and also the key to understanding its cardinal flaw.

In the same speech, Blair variously endorsed “reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic,” including “patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination.” In actualizing these values, he added, “a large measure of pragmatism is essential.”

Each theme signified something many people might vaguely identify with. But among them was not a single example whose precise meaning could not be instantly contested.

The point is hardly a semantic one. If a Conservative or fellow Labour MP had challenged Blair to explain what he meant by “promoting enterprise” or how his government planned on fighting poverty, he would be compelled to explain what he thought each of these things entailed. And, in doing so, he would’ve given the game away: you cannot promote enterprise until you determine what its goals or parameters are any more than you can attack poverty without first defining what you think it is. And, inevitably, what constitutes a “pragmatic” course of action will depend on both.

To Blair endorsing “what works,” we might reply: for whom? To what end? On the basis of which guiding principles?

This is the technocratic fallacy exposed.

Behind every political claim or prescription, no matter its source, lies a set of assumptions (conscious or otherwise) about what the horizons of politics are or what they ought to be. And more than anything else these assumptions, and the political narratives that follow, are shaped by the social and cultural outlooks of the people who hold them.

This is why, if we truly want to understand the politics of the technocratic liberal center, we need look no further than the milieu they emerged from.

“At last,” declared president-elect Bill Clinton in 1992, the Democratic Party is moving “beyond the old Left-Right debates of the past.” This was Clinton’s own “what works,” a pledge of fealty to a new era of Democratic politics that would supposedly shake loose the albatross of ideology once and for all.

As Lily Geismer has observed, the Democratic Party’s shift under Clinton was accompanied by the continued transformation of its New Deal voter coalition into one that elevated a new cohort of technocratically minded white-collar professionals over historic working-class constituencies:

Engineers, tech executives, scientists, lawyers, and academics in post-industrial, high-tech enclaves across the country [who] broadly share a political agenda that combines economic and cultural issues. They generally favor environmental protection, low taxes, freedom of choice, promotion of high-tech industry, education as a means to advancement, and expertise as a solvent for social problems. Richard Florida, who initially coined the term “creative class” to describe this constituency, characterizes their politics as “generally liberal-minded.” Above all, he argues, knowledge workers are “staunchly meritocratic” and opposed to “inequality of opportunity.” While that commitment has at times driven them to favor collective remedies to social problems, at other points, it has provoked sharp antipathy toward labor unions.

The common refrain that parties like the Democrats have “abandoned” class politics, then, is incorrect. On the contrary: working-class politics have been abandoned in favor of those reflecting the values and interests of new economy professionals.

For all its pretensions of transcending the schism between left and right, the Third Way shift amounted to a hostile takeover of the center-left by a new generation of center-right technocrats whose main achievement was welding a refurbished lexicon of liberal progressivism to the processes already initiated by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan.

To this end, the political grammar of figures like Clinton and Blair synthesized and dulled many of the traditional idioms of liberalism, conservatism, and social democracy, redeploying them in the service of manifestly neoliberal causes. A sweeping, pro-corporate agenda of labor outsourcing, privatization, financial deregulation, welfare reform, and means-testing was implemented on the back of antiseptic management-speak incessantly declaring itself loyal to no ideology at all.

What “worked” became the kinds of regulations and investments that would most benefit industries like tech and finance, what qualified as “ideological” being anything out of sync with the professional managerial class and its various political, cultural, or economic outlooks.

Politics Without Struggle

While understanding the class origins of liberal technocracy goes some way to accounting for its politics, it does not on its own explain their flaws.

What, fundamentally, is wrong with appealing to expertise and evidence, especially over popular parochialism? Aren’t compromise and consensus always integral parts of collective decision-making? Doesn’t progress require pragmatism? And isn’t the best posture to assume in the face of rising right-wing populism one of inclusive moderation?

Apart from the one glaringly obvious response — that the designated experts in media, opinion polling, economics, and electoral campaigning have spent recent years being repeatedly and resoundingly wrong — the answer to all of these questions is that technocratic management and democratic politics can and never will be synonymous.

In the lifeworld inhabited by the new economic professionals invested in the technocratic consensus — be they managers, executives, or shareholders — there are always more or less consecrated rules of operation and an agreed-upon bottom line. The actors involved are, at least formally, equal in the pursuit of their own private interests in the capitalist marketplace. Ideology doesn’t appear ideological when the basic premises are more or less shared by everyone and work to advance collective interests (usually profit and growth).

As a result, politics can be conceived like a closed corporate system that exists simply to aggregate and broker between private interests, rather than a democratic locus of debate, contestation, and struggle. The very notion of appealing to evidence or expertise (“what works”) comes to mean deference to the ruling ideology and the class interests it reflects — pragmatism being merely the best course forward for both, and consensus something not to be built but protected. (Compare this to the ethos that produced socialist politics, born of trade unionism, which sought mass mobilization against embedded structures of power towards a common good.)

Values like self-sufficiency and meritocracy are the natural outgrowths of such a milieu. And, when societies grow polarized and unequal, intransigent smugness and elitism among their winners is soon to follow. Any political argument that rises a decibel above the chatter at an eighteenth-century Parisian salon is derided as the product of mindless anger and ignorant resentment. Those at the bottom are presumed to belong there by virtue of inferior values or ethics, and their needs and demands are increasingly ignored.

If all this goes some way toward explaining the increasingly shrill and anti-democratic reflexes of centrist technocrats in the wake of their recent defeats, it also demonstrates why their response to the resurgent right will never be adequate.

Faced with an authoritarian demagogue attacking a widely detested technocratic consensus, American liberals chose as their tribune a person more synonymous with it than any other on earth. Rather than contest his campaign with a compelling populist response of their own, they sorted the electorate into Good and Bad, sought accommodation and compromise, touted their candidate’s résumé and elite support, plugged the relevant numbers into a computer, and assumed that victory was inevitable.

In defeat they, and their equivalents elsewhere, continue to take refuge in the technocratic mantra that democracy itself is to blame for their predicament, and entrench themselves further in the very assumptions and beliefs that have led them to it.

But what is needed now is a broad-based project that seeks to reinvigorate democracy and contest the elitism of liberal technocrats alongside the authoritarian tendencies of the far right. Not a return to a technocratic center bent on pitting the righteous against the “deplorables” or the “sane” against the “mindlessly angry,” but an inclusive politics of solidarity and hope that mobilizes the oppressed and exploited and takes aim squarely at the exploiters.