People who vote for politicians such as Brazilian presidential candidate Aecio Neves, as well as many of his party’s supporters (the Social Democracy Brazilian Party, PSDB), are often dumbfounded when they find out how unappealing ideas of “efficiency” in the public sector, “management shock,” and “professionalization” in government are to a large sector of the population. It’s a moderately widespread idea, also spearheaded in the Pernambuco state government (more as a campaign bullet point than real actions) by Eduardo Campos, who died on August 12. The belief is that there is — or at least should be — a vital separation between the public administration and politics; between ideology and efficiency. However, the idea of professionalizing politics, putting “technicians” in government positions, and “managing” public affairs like ordinary organizations in society is, in itself, deeply ideological.
And it isn’t one of the youngest ideologies: Thorstein Veblen talked about his technocracy of engineers in the 1920s. Veblen, in his well-known The Engineers and the Price System described engineers (“technicians”) as the class capable of promoting the principles of “scientific management” for production — as opposed to a system of market production with effective price signaling. Veblen didn’t have any problems with the corporate organization and intended to universalize its model as the foundation of society, eliminating technical limitations to what he termed “industrial values,” which were connected to productive efficiency (and had nothing to do with, and indeed were opposed to, market incentives).
Veblen championed his ideas on industry and technique as the starting point of the mass production society he envisioned. That society and its values would give rise, through industrial workers, to a new democracy with a new management style that promoted efficiency, technical knowledge and administration. That is, a machine perfectly adjusted to the control and regulation of society.
This dystopian ideal was able to find adherents and modify itself slightly during the 20th century, especially in the works of managerial progressives such as Joseph Schumpeter and John Kenneth Galbraith. Nowadays, we hear it from politicians who may think they speak with the voice of innovation when they say that specialists should fill government positions. It’s also a convenient ideology for a number of bureaucrats because it doesn’t ask whether such government positions should exist at all, but only who should fill them. It’s not about being governed or not, it’s about who is going to do the governing. Who would we want to sit on the Iron Throne if not a “specialist?” Someone who wouldn’t be driven by politico-ideological passions, but by the “industrial values” Veblen cherished. Someone to oil up the gears of this great machinery that is society.
That is all hogwash, of course, because when we talk about politics, we talk about ideology — about prioritizing, about choosing one collective goal as preferable to another. However, there are no macro social ends, at least not apart from a sum of individual goals or as a mere metaphor. Which is also the reason why it isn’t possible to put public management under the control of experts, because the very definition of what constitutes “public management” is an ideological question subject to political negotiation and resistance.
It’s impossible to remove ideology from government because government is an ideology: The ideology of power, control and suppression of dissidence. The ideology of conformity, of the macro-social, of the idea of society as an abstraction, never reducible to its individual components.
Governing, far from an activity without ideology and plans, is the stitching of majority plans within hierarchy. It’s no wonder that anarchist movements have historically tended to horizontalism and consensus-building as strategies to avoid the formation of majorities and bureaucratic power structures. These ideas of horizontalism are intended to mitigate the effects of particular ideologies when applied to the collective. In contrast, technocracy looks like a form of enlightened despotism with its attempt to rationalize processes. Of course, it’s a positive thing that socially desirable processes should be efficient and demand less resources — but we must first know which ones are the socially desirable processes. They’re not a given.
It’s somewhat ironic that lifelong politicians are the biggest (and maybe the most cynical) proponents of the technocratic creed. Aecio Neves himself, despite his claims of technical prowess in administration, is a specialist in one thing only: Getting positions in the government. He’s been the director of a large state bank, secretary of the presidency, deputy, governor, senator.
It may be the case that Aecio Neves nowadays is a puppet of the narrative he’s built for himself, replicating it as a hostage of his own rhetoric. Because Aecio has never been a technician; the technicians are the arms that execute his political plans.
Translations for this article:
- Italian, Elezioni e Ideologia Tecnocratica.