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From Technocracy and Populism to Technopopulism

A new political formation has arrived on the scene: technopopulism, or the synthesis of populism and technocracy. At first blush, such a formulation might seem like a contradiction. Technocracy and populism are typically understood as being deeply antagonistic to each other, perhaps appearing even as polar opposites: the rule of the experts versus the rule of the people. But the history of modern politics has rarely involved the replacement of one paradigm by another. Yesterday it was the technocrats who promised economic prosperity for nations; today it is the populists, as the technocrats sit atop an eviscerated industrial base, unable to account for its dilapidated state. Meanwhile, the causes that put in place the technocratic paradigm have not disappeared. That paradigm may soon be in the hands of the populists—and it is here that a strange new formation, technopopulism, finds its relevance.

As a phenomenon, technopopulism has already begun to appear on the scene in new European parties such as Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S). As Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Accetti have recently suggested, these popular movements scramble the traditional categories of technocracy and populism.1 Like classic populist parties, they oppose the status quo in a fundamental way, expressing “an ‘opposition of principle’ rather than an ‘opposition of issues.’” Each also takes a distinctly anti-pluralist stance.2 But like classical technocrats, both emphasize “pragmatic” solutions to problems and ground their political opposition in the idea that they alone bear the “proper knowledge” necessary to determine these solutions. Rather than the simple populist appeal against knowledge, they offer a replacement knowledge or a different technique. Even more tellingly, M5S and Podemos present themselves as “post-ideological,” which not only opens space for the scrambling of the traditional Left and Right coordinates of political identity, but also serves as the justification for this appeal to higher knowledge. In part, M5S and Podemos are working to answer the typical critique that populism is intrinsically irrational and emotion-driven. They combine a technocratic form with populist content. As Bickerton and Accetti suggest, technocracy’s claim to unique correctness may even pave the way for populist movements to make similar counterclaims.

Yet the history of technopopulism goes back even further than recent events. Arthur Lipow and Patrick Seyd used technopopulism to describe the rise of “anti-party politics” in the 1990s.3 At that time, technopopulism reflected common expectations that politics would change in the new post-ideological, postindustrial world. Bottom-up processes, integrated with information technology, would replace the “mass politics” and slow-moving democracies incubated by the industrial epoch. While Lipow and Seyd focused on the post-Thatcher turn of New Labour, a similar form of technopopulism can also be found in the rise of Silicon Valley–inspired libertarianism. Indeed, as they point out, interviews with one New Labour leader appeared in Wired, a key journal for the new “Californian Ideology.”

More recently, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a hybrid offspring of “populism and technolibertarianism” emerged, as has been described by Marco Deseriis.4 Consider, for example, the rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that tapped into populist aspirations as well as techno-geekdom. Deseriis distinguishes between a “technocratic and leaderless variant” of technopopulism, based more overtly on libertarianism, and a “leaderist, more strictly populist variant” far more congenial to nationally oriented mass politics. The first tendency, he suggests, appears “in the modes of governance of small technoparties such as the Pirate Parties, free and open source software development projects, open content communities, and the emerging discourse of Liquid Democracy.” The second tendency, found in Podemos and M5S especially, combines “charismatic leadership with participatory uses of networked media.”5

Stranger yet is the new technopopulism’s insistence on restoring industrial progress—the very thing that technocracy itself originally envisaged. The variety of technopopulisms suggests that deeper struc-tural tendencies are at work. To understand how populism will change the political system, we have to grasp the nature of technocracy and the nature of populism, before understanding their coming synthesis.

Technocracy: Aristocracy of the Machine

In common parlance, technocracy is thought of as an ideological disposition and an accompanying package of programs for governance, rather than a reflection of actually existing governmental functions. When understood this way, technocracy appears to be just the viewpoint that a certain managerial elite wants to inflict on the economy and society. If the roots of technocracy lie deeper in the modern project, however—as they doubtless do—we should expect them to have greater resilience in governmental practice. But first we have to see how technocracy originally came to present itself as a system of management, and how it tracked parallel developments in technological capitalism.

In its political origins, technocracy was built on an overt disregard for any kind of popular or populist form of governance, and most of its historical manifestations have maintained this disregard. The earliest iterations of technocracy-as-ideology can be found in the utopian socialism of Henri de Saint-Simon. Writing during and in the wake of the French Revolution, Saint-Simon articulated a vision of a future political system organized into a series of “houses,” each overseen and managed by a regime of scientists, technicians, engineers, and experts of various stripes. Procedural democracy was fairly absent from his schema; a parliamentary structure was retained, but its members were to be handpicked by the ruling administrators. The social progress that technocracy was to achieve would unfold not through the voice of the people, but through the realization of technological advancement. Saint-Simon’s technocratic socialism, in other words, was an aristocracy of the machine.

This same technocratic impulse would later reach a fever pitch in the United States, right as the twentieth century dawned and the liquid dreams of unlimited progress were rekindled in the wake of fin de siècle pessimism. This was the era of the Progressives and the reformist efforts of their so-called Efficiency Movement. Just like Saint-Simon, the Progressives understood technology and technique as key to the alleviation of social ills. As one reformer wrote in 1912, “there are everywhere signs of an increasing recognition by our more democratic governments that to fulfill their functions they must be efficient.” This efficient government was to be achieved through a cult of engineers invested with the power to rework and optimize the social order.

Technocratic reform movements emerged alongside and often overlapped with various new approaches to the question of management and engineering in the field of political economy, such as those promoted by Thorstein Veblen. In his 1919 work The Engineers and the Price System, Veblen argued that with the development of large-scale industry into the emergent order of “corporate” capitalism, a gulf grew between “business management” and “technological experts”—a division, in other words, between the economic interests on the market side, and the engineers and managers overseeing the production process.6 But Veblen went further still. With the degree of efficiency that was being achieved in the machine process, and the vast material abundance provided by mass production, the “price system” of the market—and the business functions attached to it—could only be viewed as a retrograde phenomenon, something to be consigned to the pages of history.

Veblen’s technocracy came to pose the need for a “Soviet of technicians to take over economic affairs of the country . . . [and] consistently and effectually take care of the material welfare of the underlying population.”7 On the one hand, Veblen directly evoked the political and cultural push toward reformist technocracy; on the other, he provided the outline of a vast mechanism that was only then just coming into being, which John Kenneth Galbraith would later deem the “technostructure.” Alongside the subordination of markets to long-term planning, Galbraith would perceive the growing divide between business owners and a technically inclined managerial stratum. This transformation partly emerged from the failure of the growth of economies of scale.

Technocratic theories emerged alongside a host of other analyses of an ongoing paradigm shift in the development of capitalism. Around the same time, Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means identified the split between ownership and management (discussed in their 1932 work The Modern Corporation and Private Property). Alfred Chandler triumphantly celebrated intensive mass production units that were making “administrative coordination more efficient and more profitable than market coordination.”

What this implies is that technocracy as an ideological system reflects a real institutional transformation happening within the development of capitalism. In fact, Karl Marx had noticed similar developments. Consider the following, from the third volume of Capital:

The capitalist mode of production has brought matters to a point where the work of supervision, entirely divorced from the ownership of capital, is always readily attainable. It has become useless, therefore, for the capitalist to perform it himself. An orchestra conductor need not own the instruments of his orchestra, nor is it within the scope of his duties as conductor to have anything to do with the “wages” of the other musicians. Co-operative factories furnish proof that the capitalist has become . . . redundant as a functionary of production.8

Marx’s analysis of the manager, scattered across his work, helps shine a light on the distinctly non-Marxist theories that emerged in later decades. For Marx, the manager is not simply an indication of the growing separation of internal functions of firms from ownership; he is also a figure that emerges atop a technological and organizational mutation at a particular point of capitalism’s evolution as a mode of production. “The labour of supervision and management,” Marx wrote elsewhere in Capital, “is naturally required wherever the direct process of production assumes the form of a combined social process, and not the isolated labour of independent producers.”9

At first, says Marx, the manager merely “formally” brings traditional production processes under the direction of capitalism. But as production processes accelerate and limits on the workday are introduced, the manager’s position begins to change: he, and the social framework of which he is a part, becomes “really subsumed” by the development of capitalism. These new production processes, says Marx, are based on “co-operation, division of labor within the workshop, the use of machinery, and . . . the conscious use of the sciences, of mechanics, chemistry, etc. for specific ends, technology, etc. and similarly through the enormous increase of scale corresponding to such developments.”10 It is clear why the manager and the engineer have particular importance. The regulation of processes internal to the capitalist firm here aims at increasing the complexity of the division of labor, specializing the infrastructure of production, and driving the scale of production to new heights.

Once capitalist production reaches this more advanced stage, a whole succession of additional phases emerges, in which the entire composition of production—and by extension, the composition of classes, distribution patterns, governmental structures, etc.—undergoes qualitative shifts. These shifts in turn bring changes in the regulation of work, alongside a deepening of the role of technology in the production process. One early development was Taylorism, the micromanagement of the laborer’s body in coordination with the stopwatch in order to better optimize productive movement. But it was Fordism that surpassed Taylorism in defining an entire epoch—first by combining this rigorous form of managerialism with the reorganization of production around the assembly line, and then by setting in motion a whole series of social, economic, and governmental changes. In the early years of Fordism, the Efficiency Movement and the cultural fascination with managers and engineers reached its apex. America saw the growth of large-scale firms and zones of production, the realization of an integrated national market, and the arrival of a strong, interventionist state that sought to base itself upon scientific principles.

If factory management is the germ of technocracy, then it was under Fordism that the manager was fully transposed into the figure of the technocrat. As Antonio Gramsci wrote in “Americanism and Fordism,” the sweeping mobilization of the social and economic order in this period derived “from an inherent necessity to achieve the organization of the planned economy.”11 Through the historical rearview mirror, we can perhaps understand this planned economy not as the large-scale central planning that rose in the Soviet Union (which openly borrowed from the Fordist playbook), but as an anticipation of what Galbraith called technostructure. Just as managers emerged through the development of a more scientific production process, so too the technostructure emerged out of the requirements of a new phase of large-scale production.

According to Marxists, the more capitalist processes intensify, the more capital is concentrated and centralized in firms that are the most competitively and technologically efficient. In this situation, as Ran-iero Panzieri puts it, planning appears to be “an essential aspect of capital’s development,” as the need for deeper coordination moves to the fore.12 Galbraith suggests the same: “Planning is not a willful act of the large enterprise,” he wrote, but rather it is “inherent in the whole matrix of development of which advanced technology, intensive use of capital, [and] the rise of the technostructure are a part.”13 This planning is not limited to the internal actions of the firm but subjects the whole market to its imperatives. While the old order had been organized around consumer desire and the price system, now public demand for products is planned in advance.

The final step in the emergence of full technocracy arrives through the transposition of this properly capitalist managerialism to the realm of governance. Under Fordism in particular, the interests of business and those of government aligned in ways they previously had not. The internal and external planning of the firm had to be complemented by a state that engaged in the smoothing out of uneven development and that willingly bore the costs and risks of infrastructural development and, eventually, of research and development. Galbraith explored this idea in his own way by putting theoretical limits on the scope of the technostructure: its functioning, he noted, was both tempered and essentially complemented by the stratum of scientists and academics connected to the university system and by a regime of government experts. These three groups—each elite and anti-popular in its own way—bear upon one another and together cultivate the institutional linkages that are the formal structures of technocracy.

When populists take power, they are often unprepared for the task of managing a large technocratic system. But the system will hardly budge simply due to rhetorical bravado. To see how technocracy and populism might combine, we must next turn to populism.

Populism, Ungrounded and Grounded

Compared to the nebulousness of technocracy, populism at first seems more substantive. After all, populists claim to represent “the people” and offer the self-understanding of the people as the basis for political action. The antagonistic social field cultivated by populism pits the people against those excluded from it. This antagonistic dimension, which can be found as early as Carl Schmitt’s classic grounding of the political in the friend/enemy distinction, is central to theories of populism offered by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, as well as in Jan-Werner Müller’s more recent work on the topic. Yet this account of populism is, on reflection, more about form than any specific substance.

For Jan-Werner Müller, a longtime critic of populism, populism’s friend/enemy distinction leads it to be intractably “anti-pluralist,” because the populist politician claims to be the exclusive representative of the people.14 Müller concludes, by extension, that populism is simply a variant of identity politics, one that is ultimately dangerous, prone to demagoguery, and bound to “reactionary” social formations. Müller betrays a technocratic disposition by offering “the building of majorities” as his alternative to “the people.” This majority is envisioned as having a concrete nature, something that stands in contrast to the vacuous concept of the people. Even though his solution is rather uninteresting, the problem he poses is quite important: What is this thing, the people? How does it work, from where does it come, and what is its ultimate destination?

The populist theories of Ernesto Laclau, perhaps ironically, converge with Müller’s criticism of the people as a void. Laclau offers an understanding of populist politics based more on form than on content, with the people being something that is actualized through the emergence of an “empty signifier.”15 This empty signifier—a rallying point, a generalization of a program, or a figurehead—is itself mutable, capable of connecting itself to a spectrum of social causes that are divergent from and antagonistic to the status quo. Laclau’s theory defines populism in profoundly postmodern terms: it is broadly unstructured, linguistically oriented, floating, not bound to hard content in relationship to its form. This populism exists in an ungrounded state—and given that technocracy can be grounded in objective tendencies of capitalist development, populism cries out for a grounding of its own.

One way to ground populism would be to describe it, in the tradition of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, as part of the “self-protection of society.”16 Whereas Marxism made the proletarian into the revolutionary subject, Polanyi finds the grounds for radical antagonism in organized social life itself. Society reacts against the self-liberation of markets: having begun as something embedded in the social fabric, markets became progressively unmoored from this substrate and turned against it. Faced with the decomposition of social order, society engages in an attempt to reel in what has escaped. This self-protection, according to Polanyi, aims “at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation, restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.”17

This social self-protection can encompass a wide spectrum of populist politics. Polanyi’s model no longer turns exclusively on a strict working-class platform (though it seems that the working class is equally capable of being the vehicle for these modes of politics to emerge). It extends to the struggles of the small landowner, it makes uses of mechanisms available both within organized mass politics and outside of it, and it begins as a reaction to circumstances that raise the specter of social calamity. Social self-protection is a kind of self-preservation—a desperate bid to retain some element of a swiftly dis-solving ground. For this reason, there seems little need to limit its manifestations to the historical instances outlined by Polanyi, which tend to emphasize strictly the reaction against the market.

In fact, self-protection is a common catalyst for populist politics. America’s agrarian populists took aim at the development of the modern market, as it called for an integrated, industrialized system that sent brutal shocks reverberating through traditional social life. Both left- and right-wing populisms since the 1990s have positioned themselves against economic globalization’s ferocious capacity for tearing apart labor conditions, living standards, and “autonomous” cultures. It matters little that the forms of these populisms, which very often coincided in time and space and maintained intriguing contact with one another, were diverse (social democratic, civic nationalist, paleoconservative, Jeffersonian individualist, etc.). What connected them was reaction against an integrated political and economic machinery that threatened particular forms of life.

Yet it is not just the market that populist self-protection has historically seen as its enemy; it is the technocratic order itself. As an active accelerant of capital’s permanent reorganization of social life, the figure of the technocrat appears before the world as the great reducer of Spirit, as the agent who extinguishes any and all sensuous characteristics of life. Paul Piccone drew attention to this side of the American populisms of the early 1990s, for which it was less the market and more the technocratic “New Class” that was the object of populist antagonism.18 The convergence glimpsed here between these two dimensions—marketization and technocratic government—was perhaps even more pronounced in the eurozone, where the formation of a common market and integrated banking structure was coupled with a grand political program to regulate the “irrationality” of the people. The explosion of Euroskepticism, secessionism, and anti-austerity politics in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was the swelling revolt of the “molten masses,” appearing in the technocratic gaze as a coursing liquid irrationality capable of undermining the “stable” controls installed at the End of History.

In each case—the agrarian populists of yesteryear and the political movements that bookend the epoch of globalization—the self-protection of society does not pose itself simply as opposition to the market. It also forms a series of imaginary coordinates—similar to, yet more concrete than, Laclau’s empty signifiers—that guide political action. These coordinates are by no means stable, nor are they guaranteed to become reality; the self-protection of society must be understood as relative to particular historical moments and not the reflection of some obscured but unwavering gemeinschaft. The self-protection of society can, however, serve as an “anticipation of the future,” even if this future is all too often folded back into the articulation of an imaginary past.

Synthesis

If the populist political movement is to gain power, it must confront the structural mechanisms which it has historically opposed. At every level, government is integrated with business processes via the expan-sion of technocratic powers. The technocratic system seeks to regulate economic rhythms and social life in order to maintain an ongoing, progressive “steady state” of affairs. What I hope is clear at this point is that technocracy—a word which might muddy the waters far more than clear them—is less an ideology than it is an institutional lock-in, an iron cage capable of its own motivations, its own imperatives, and its own shifts and breaks as it proceeds along its course. Once this lock-in effect is achieved, it is exceedingly difficult to turn technocracy away from its trajectory.

Sooner or later, victorious populists have to integrate themselves into the vast machine of technocratic government. Through this integration, however, the technocratic side can itself be transformed. Technopopulism, or technocratic populism, describes this synthesis. Technopopulism is a variant of governance which conforms neither to technocracy nor to populism. While many populists might balk at the suggestion that they will become technocrats of any variety, technopopulism is a recognition of the real conditions for governance in advanced industrial and so-called postindustrial—or, more properly, post-Fordist—societies.

Populism has been through a transformation like this before—during the New Deal, when American government embraced a radically experimental, neo-Hamiltonian program to stem the crisis of the Great Depression. Numerous charges have been flung at the New Deal from opponents across the political spectrum, both Left and Right: that it was an actualization of socialism or of fascism, that it was the bourgeoisie buying off the working class, that it was a victory of the workers’ movement, and much else besides. But a careful excavation of the New Deal reveals that its malleable character was an expression of the collision between populist currents and technocratic imperatives.

The populist dimension of the New Deal can be seen not only in its goals and the aesthetic forms that it put into motion, but also in its deep engagement with a vast array of social movements—especially the labor and agrarian movements. The picture becomes more complicated, however, when we consider that these movements were themselves zones of contestation—a constantly shifting borderland of alliances and breakages. The agrarian movements in particular were a case of what Garrett Graddy-Lovelace has termed “fraught populism,” characterized by the dynamic tension between “a grassroots, agrarian justice-oriented populism” and governmental institutions that strove to curb radical—even “Bolshevist”—tendencies.19 The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), for instance, served as a battlefield for these interests, as it tended, on the one hand, toward a “horizontal” national association of farmers and, on the other, toward a “vertical,” elite-dominated institution. The engagement of the AFBF with the New Deal structure did not pivot on the victory of one side or another (although the grassroots side would eventually decline), and the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, for which the institution had fought so hard, would be met by both praise and disdain from a myriad of different agrarian social movements. More generally, Richard Hofstader has noted that the New Deal coalition itself required the support of southern and midwestern political figures who had roots in populist-led agrarian struggles.20

The technocratic element of the New Deal was concentrated primarily in its national planning dimensions. As Patrick Reagan has shown in his magisterial work Designing a New America, New Deal planning emerged as the result of a long process that had begun in the 1890s, rooted in the same progressivist Efficiency Movement that we mentioned as the political-cultural expression of objective developmental tendencies.21 A loose network then formed, lacing together municipal planners, industrial interests (the technostructure), and social scientists affiliated with large capitalist philanthropic endeavors (primarily in the Social Sciences Research Council). This network gradually converged as the decades wore on, before finally taking on institutional form under the administration of President Herbert Hoover. From there, it was only a small leap to the New Deal national planning agenda—and importantly, as Reagan notes, many of the individuals who contributed to this agenda were Republicans who ultimately defected to Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. Transformative hybrid regimes, it seems, usher in odd alliances and new encounters.

Today, developed nations such as the United States find themselves in a position of deindustrialization, which has locked them into a downward spiral of stagnation and decadence. The result in recent years has been the upsurge of populist tendencies, of both the Left and the Right, alongside a renewed push for reindustrialization and for a restoration of productive economic growth. It is unsurprising, then, that the ghosts of large-scale pushes like the New Deal will come once again to haunt the popular and political imagination, acting as a strange beacon that the technocrats currently holding power tend to disdain. If by chance their power were to be broken, and the populists were once again to ascend, the result would not necessarily look as the New Deal once did. Nor is the structure of New Deal programs, reflective of their own time and place, particularly desirable. What is needed now could very well be beyond them. What it would mean, however, is this: that the coming epoch may very well be one of technopopulism.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 2 (Summer 2020): 78–89.

Notes

1 Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, “‘Technopopulism’ as a New Family Party: The Case of the Five Star Movement and Podemos,” Contemporary Italian Politics 10, no. 2 (2018): 132–50.

2 Bickerton and Accetti, 134.

3 Arthur Lipow and Patrick Seyd, “Political parties and the challenge to democracy: From Steam-Engines to Techno-Populism,” New Political Science 17, no. 2 (1995): 295–308.

4 Marco Deseriis, “Technopopulism: The Emergence of a Discursive Formation,” tripleC 15, no. 2 (2017): 441–58.

5 Deseriis, 441–42.

6 Thorstein Veblen, The Engineers and the Price System (New York: Huesbsch, 1921): 60.

7 Veblen, 116.

8 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 507.

9 Marx, 507.

10 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977): 1024.

11 Antonio Gramsci, Quentin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers, 1992): 279.

12 Raniero Panzieri, “Surplus Value and Planning: Notes on the Reading of Capital,” in Conference of Socialist Economists, CSE Pamphlet No. 1: The Labour Process & Class Strategies (London: 1977), 7.

13 John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973).

14 Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

15 Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (New York: Verso, 2018).

16 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

17 Polanyi, 138–39.

18 For Piccone’s perspective on American anti-technocrat populism, see Paul Piccone, “Postmodern Populism,” Telos, no. 103 (Spring 1995): 45–86. On the “New Class,” see Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (London: Palgrave, 1979).

19 Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, “U.S. Farm Policy as Fraught Populism: Tracing the Scalar Tensions of Nationalist Agricultural Governance,” Annals of the American Association Geographers 109, no. 2 (February 2019): 395–411.

20 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage, 1960).

21 Patrick D. Reagan, Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).


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