The Radical Technocrat

By Dylan Quigley—

Expertism should be politicized, not neutralized by dangerous appeals to “mass democracy.”

The Radical Left has an uncomfortable tendency to claim a majoritarian righteousness for which it has no mandate.

The reality is that nearly 63 million people voted for Trump. And while in the most charitable interpretation, millions voted for Trump in spite of his uniquely open racism and misogyny, the more likely and unfortunate truth is that at least some sizeable minority voted for him precisely because of his racism and bigotry. The contrasting news is also not great. Bernie Sanders’s rise gave many people hope that, with the Sanders campaign’s youth sentiment and anti-capitalist overtones, the radical left might be gaining ground. But Sanders proved incapable of moving beyond one-note, white, economic populism and was beaten handily by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. All of this also has to squared with the fact that despite the hopes of leftists, outside electoral politics there is no evidence of a lurking-but disillusioned mass waiting to be galvanized. Significant majorities of the general population support capitalism and police support is at all time highs, even across racial lines.

Not that anyone can convince the current Radical Left that this is the case. The political language of the Left has largely divested itself of the capital letter rhetorical trapping of the 60s and 70s (The People, The Oppressed), but the idea this language represents—that the Radical Left speaks for a downtrodden majority—is still implicit in contemporary radical anti-Liberalism, particularly in critiques of Clintonite technocracy.

Essentially, the argument put forward by Sanders and the internet Jacobins, is that the Liberal Elite is a tiny minority of individuals who believe, because of history, identity, or education, that they know better than the majority how the political and economic spheres should function. Due to hubris and some vaguely implied corruption, this cabal has made a series of disastrous decisions that are against the true wishes of the public. To Sanders contingent and the Jacobins, a vaguely defined “mass politics” is the alternative to the technocratic leadership whose shibboleth is Oxbridge, embodied in this country by its intellectual and social descendants: the Ivy League.

To be clear, the contemporary Left’s main critique of technocratic management is not that they have too much knowledge. Instead, the criticism is centered around the fact that the degrees of Ivy League professional schools actually ensure too little in terms of effective management. The elite technocrats, this line of criticism, are conditioned by their training to be overconfident in their ability to manage complex problems. At the same time, the elites devalue the knowledge of others with other forms of background and experience; knowledge that could, in theory, help solve problems.

Yet, the sins of the Liberal Elite are not so different than those of the majority of the country: an ideological investment in capitalism and white supremacy, a fear of radical change, a focus on the spectacular at the expense of the structural. The Clinton’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill, for example, now one of the must obvious sins of the triangulating elite, was wildly popular, even among African Americans. That is to say, the Crime Bill was not a thwarting of popular will—it was an appeal to the popular will. As recent polling shows, “The People” love bootstraps and businessmen a lot more than socialism.

But even if there was actually was a “The People” that stood in contrast to the Liberal Elite, the agenda of the Radical Left can hardly be argued to be more democratic than that of the Neoliberal Center, particularly if democracy is thought of in majoritarian terms. Probably less. Both attempt to establish their legitimacy in majoritarian format of democracy. But only the Democrats, sensitive to winning voters and working within the poll-tested realms of the possible, really bother to find out what a majority—or at least a plurality—of the people actually have in mind. And it turns out the “The People” don’t actually want to empty the prisons, dismantle the military, and open the borders. But the Radical Left claims that these are these what would best benefit “The People,” a claim is, in the face the majority opposition to these position, elite expertism of only a slightly different type.

It is a contradiction that matters. To speak of “the masses” as if a majority (or even a significant minority) supports a radical transformation of American systems of capitalism and white supremacy is deeply harmful. For one thing, it ensures defeat. By talking although the majority is already on its side, the Radical Left allows itself to continue without any real rhetorical strategy for how to change people’s minds in the long term, and it refuses to acknowledge the multitude of ways The Oppressed oppress each other across lines of race, sex, ability and class. Down that road lies all of the worst strains of Bernieism – colorblindness, economic nationalism, and an obsession with the middle class that pushes aside all other interests.

Instead of claiming a false legitimacy, we in the Left should say what we mean: The expertise of the Liberal Elite is bad and the expertise of the Radical Left is better. Replace their experts with ones who will represent the 15% of Americans in poverty, the 5% of Americans who will be incarcerated in their lifetime, the 0.6% of Americans who are transgender, the 963 people killed by police in 2016.

These are anti-democratic demands if the solution is “mass politics.” Yet the appeal to the majority is not political – it pushes responsibility for our demands off onto a crowd that does not exist. It allows radicals to act as a Voice of The Oppressed rather than being accountable to their actual communities. We should refuse the experts of Liberal Center because they have produced disaster not because it is against the wishes of the majority. Like in the 1994 Crime Bill, the wishes of the majority may be disaster—and it is the job of the Left to convince the majority to not prefer disaster.

We need to acknowledge our liabilities. Like the maligned technocrats, the Radical Left is a tiny minority of individuals who believe, because of history, identity, or education, that they know better than the majority how the political and economic spheres should be constituted. To claim that a majority of the country agrees with our goals or demands requires wishful thinking, or a vulgar belief in the false consciousness and delusion of the masses.

But there is another kind of democracy. The individuals that the Radical Left rightly places in the center are ultra-minorities: Black women, trans-gender/sex sex workers, Muslim refugees. There is a growing and powerful movement to place folks with identities marked by intersectional oppression in positions of leadership because of their unique knowledge and abilities. This project is absolutely vital to resisting capitalist white supremacy but runs absolutely counter to majoritarian democracy. And that’s ok.

Expertism should be politicized, not neutralized by appeals to “mass democracy.” We should promote new standards of qualification around identity and experience in addition to fancy degrees. But we can’t pretend that a humanities Ph.D is more democratic then one in economics.

The project of forwarding the leadership of minorities is not so different structurally than meritocratic technocracy, but it is radical in what it understands as crucial knowledge and qualifications. Intersectional movement building that prioritizes the experience of experiences and expertise of those who experience cross-cutting oppression isn’t splintering and divisive; that presumes the fantasy of some existing radical majority. Rather, if the Radical Left is to ever actually build a majority movement it will have to be a majority of minorities. It will have to knit together a multitude of experiences of oppression into a movement that challenges white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy.

Or so I think. Most people don’t.


CITE THIS: Dylan Quigley, “The Radical Technocrat,” The American Left 1, no. 1 (May, 2017).