Despite the election results in France, people the world over are getting mighty tired of their technocrats. You know the sort of ’crat I mean: people like Al Gore, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Francois Hollande: internationalists, advocates of the merger of state and economic power and of multi-state configurations. People for whom expertise, as established by prestige credentials, entitles an individual or a class to rule. Back in the 1990s, the whole orientation could be summarized in two Clintonian words: “smart grid.”
I’d call the technocrats “philosopher kings”—Plato also argued that those who know should rule—but really, it does not take a Socrates to kill the SATs or the LSATs, only a privileged background and enough resources for a good prep course.
All around the “developed” world, people abandoned by or alienated from the technocracy are floating far to the left or far to the right, as in Sanders socialism or Bannon nationalism, UKIP or Corbyn, and—in France—Le Pen and the left wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. That’s the hope of “mainstream” politicians, whether they lean left or right. Theresa May is next: fortunate most of all in the divisions between her opponents, and their ancient-sounding left- or right-wing programs, their tired hopes for state socialism or racial nationalism.
Let me set out some of the features of the sort of politician who’s at risk of repudiation. They’re people who rose through hierarchical educational institutions by means of extreme conformity. They’re people whose primary currency isn’t cash money but pecking-order prestige: in the States, perhaps Yale or Stanford, Goldman-Sachs, Covington and Burling, or Silicon Valley. The money follows as a matter of course, and the power too.
They have a pointedly bland rhetoric of empty catch-phrases. Because they believe they themselves know and that the people they govern do not, they think of the purpose of public discourse as manipulating the ignorant. That should be easy by their own account, and they’ve developed the “scientific” machinery of polling, focus groups, and demographics to aid them. They’re always shocked when it doesn’t work, or when people somehow notice how repulsive they are, how mediocre, how insincere, and how often they turn out not to know what they purport to know.
For example, they don’t know of themselves that their first priority is to further the interests of people like themselves, for they take themselves to be benevolent in their overlordship, or indeed to be doing it all to help uplift precisely the sort of people whom their international state-capital machine is grinding down or excluding.
They’re “internationalists,” and what they want—no matter what they say—is a growth and merger of giant states and financial interests into a world-system, with free trade and a social safety net, a world environmental regime, and an international police force. You’d call it international socialism, but people are making billions.
One model of the future they imagine is the government of China, both a giant, vaguely leftist totalitarian megastate and an amazing machine for generating cash money and directing it to the top of the political hierarchy. In the US it takes the form, for example, of a generation-long merger of the Treasury Department with the financial industry, as well as an ever-larger educational/welfare state on which we all depend for our very existence.
People have tried to develop various terms for the era: “neo-liberalism,” for example, or (extremely) “late capitalism.” I call it “squishy totalitarianism,” and I don’t believe that it’s clearly a phase of capitalism; I think we’re after capitalism. As I say, it’s characterized by a merger of state power with global capital in multi-state configurations (NAFTA or the EU, for example). It has represented the construction of a truly global hierarchy, which meets every year at Davos.
The technocrats think they are egalitarians and that their regime will more or less benefit everyone. But, like any system of rule, this one ends up benefitting the people operating it and brutalizing many others. An educational hierarchy, a hierarchy of expertise or rule by TED talk, is as much a system of exclusion and oppression as is any other such hierarchy. All over the world right now, there are a thousand reactions.