The technocratic myth and the politics of Left and Right

By Marta Lorimer | 26 May 2014

To quote this document: Marta Lorimer, “The technocratic myth and the politics of Left and Right”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 26 May 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1829, displayed on 16 December 2017

Talking of the decline of the Left and the Right has become commonplace in European politics. Whether this is due to the emergence of parties which claim to be neither Left nor Right, or to the emergence of leaders who cannot be easily be placed in the traditional vision of Left and Right, the message is the same: Left and Right are “old” categories which make little sense nowadays. If we accept as true the common knowledge of the convergence of the Left and the Right, there are two questions to be asked about it: the first is “why could this have happened” while the second is “is there anything that can be done about it?”

From the art of politics to the technique of politics

Writing in 1962, Oakenshott claimed that the rationalist mind had infiltrated itself into politics, transforming them from a “concrete knowledge of the permanent interests and direction of movement of a society” to “the politics of the book”. Being a politician has become following the rules of the book rather than following the rules of society and the rules of politics have become the rule of technocrats. However, one may feel about Oakenshott’s conservative positions, he suggests an important evolution in politics, mirrored quite closely from critiques from the Left (see for example Streek, 2011). Whether one blames it on the economic myths of neo-liberalism or on the despicable loss of the “art” of politics, replaced by a mere “technique” of politics, politics has increasingly been relegated to a corner where it is bound to act according to the book and not according to the circumstances.

The better way versus the right way

Words are important, and there is an abyss between the word “better” and the word “right”. Politics is supposed to be about the word “better”. Because politics are about discussing an issue and finding the best solution to it, they presume the possibility to be able to arrive by means of dialogue to a good solution or that the decision which is implemented is somehow representative of “the people”. A satisfactory solution is not the only possible one, however. The Left and the Right may go around a problem in very different ways. One of them might be more equipped to face a problem than the other, nevertheless, the solution they will come to is one amongst many.

Technocracy, on the contrary, presupposes that there is no such thing as a multiplicity of solutions but one right solution, one right path. In this sense, it might be one of the most frightening features for pluralist societies, in so far as it re-introduces absolute notions of right and wrong without linking them to anything but the book. Thus, by advocating that there is only one true way to go about things, it imposes its own right way over the possibility of an option.

Waking up from the technocratic dream

The technocratic myth is indeed a powerful one in European politics and has been so throughout the last few years. The idea that there are benchmarks and criteria to be met, and that these are objective, has been the whip used against Southern (but not only) European countries. Austerity measures have been sold as “the way out of the crisis” under the pretext that they were the technically appropriate way. What is more problematic, however, is that almost no one on the Left or on the Right tried to suggest that this right way is not, in fact, the only possible way. Left and right parties have transformed political decision into “responsible behaviour” that is in fact a nice word for their inability to make political decisions. Following the book rather than whatever their constituencies are asking is presented as an absolute necessity, something which cannot be avoided, else the “spread” will destroy all that has been hardly constructed through years of sacrifices. Opposition to it has been weak from both sides, leaving the suggestion that there may be different ways to tackle issues in the hands of Beppe Grillo or Marine Le Pen. While their options may not be realistic (because just a quick glance at their program suggests that what is required to change things is possibly the overthrowing of the current world order), they are options which put some form of deliberation back in the game.

Reintroducing the conditional form in politics

There is nothing objective about technocracy: each question has a multitude of answers. The Left and the Right need to wake up from the technocratic dream. There can be no absolute right and wrong in politics. What there can be is a better defended position, which must be put under attentive scrutiny and not sold as the only possible option but as “the best amongst the possible options because etc”. This is the greatest challenge the Left and the Right will have to face throughout the next few years: parties on both sides need to show that not only are there alternatives to the way things are, but also that change is possible and that there are different ways that one may go about it.

If you want to know what is true or false, you can ask Google. But in politics, there is no such thing as a clear-cut answer. The conditional form needs to be reintroduced in politics. What we need are not people who know what is right and what is wrong: we need people who have an idea of what might be right or what might be wrong. And their ideas must be different.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe's website :

To read :

  • Streek, W. (2011), ‘The Crises of Democratic Capitalism’, New Left Review 71 (Sept.-Oct.).
  • Oakeshott, M. (1991), Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Indianapolis: Liberty Press

Photo credit : Eurocracy, by Derek Law, on flickr 

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