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Technocrat

The technocrat and the demagogue

Sina Odugbemi's picture

To recap and settle our terms, the populist demagogues now emerging as leaders of governments around the world have a peculiar way of operating. At the core of their practice is a truculent nationalism that defines a part of the political community as the ‘real’ people. They claim to govern in the name of ‘the people’, as defined. They use polarization deliberately, even when in government; they define enemies and rail against these unceasingly in colorful language. They demonize The Other/ the Outsider. They are crude propagandists without the slightest regard for truth or logic or the rules of polite discourse. They can be both boorish and ridiculous…and they rejoice in the fact.

Now, typical technocrats or policy wonks are highly educated persons, usually with advanced degrees from excellent universities. These are minds that have been tilled, ploughed and cultivated to a sophisticated degree. They understand ideas. They have been trained to handle evidence with care. They have been taught the basic rules of logic, the nature of fallacious or tendentious reasoning etc. They also know the importance of public debate and discussion, of making your case vigorously but fairly, of avoiding lies, obfuscation and downright dishonesty. Finally, whatever the ideological commitments of these technocrats or policy wonks, they are not usually people who go around spouting racist or misogynistic views in public …no matter what they privately believe.

Yet, look around the world today, and you will notice that quite a few supposedly polished technocrats are working for brute demagogues. You listen to them and you wonder: How have you sold this gig to yourself, comrade?

Quote of the Week: Niall Ferguson

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Niall Ferguson at a Chatham House event on 9 May 2011"Politically, most of the world has never been more boring. Instead of the alarms and excursions of the past, we now have technocrats versus populists. Any violence is verbal and the technocrats nearly always win."

Niall Ferguson, a British historian from Scotland, who specializes in international history; economic history, particularly hyperinflation and the bond markets; and British and American imperialism. Ferguson's books include Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and Civilization: The West and the Rest. He is also the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University; Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford; a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University; and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities.

The Enduring Allurement of Technocratic Competence

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The history of political thought has been, in a sense, a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern: the idea that experts should rule and the idea that the people should rule themselves. It has been a never-ending tussle, and just when you think the idea that the people can and should rule has won, we see established democracies tossing out elected governments and installing rule by technocrats. The issue is important for this blog for a simple reason: in international development, the belief that experts know best and should shape public policy in developing countries is as difficult to kick as an addiction to cocaine.

So, let’s be clear: while the allurement of technocratic competence in a crisis is understandable it remains just a trifle absurd to suppose that technocratic competence can replace democratic politics rather than being its humble servant.  Experts have a huge role in a crisis, financial or otherwise, but to believe that finding a path out of a crisis is the sole business of experts is not only wrong but naïve. For, the response to a crisis is inherently and inescapably political. And this is true on at least two levels.