Technocracy and Populism

Screenshot from 2019-11-21 13-02-18

An interesting convergence of two sets of writings on populism and technocracy drifted across the tl yesterday: the latest issue of American Affairs, dedicated to the ongoing evaporation of laissez-faire’s hegemonic status in American thought, and a paper on the politics of Italy’s Five Star Movement (5MS) and Spain’s Podemos as being “techno-populist” in orientation. The former—as far as I’ve read—doesn’t delve into the issues surrounding these two prongs with any depth, leaving their articulation of subtext, while the latter reads these political organizations as a hybrid form born from the intermingling of each respective position.

The headlining article in American Affairs, written by Hudson Institute historian Arthur Herman, bears a title whose simplicity contains within itself a watershed moment: “America Needs an Industrial Policy”. From the opening paragraph, a litany of free-market ideologues—”from Milton Friedman and Martin Feldstein to George Gilder and Arthur Laffer”—and experiments in state-led development are quickly glossed, followed by Herman’s brief summation of the current shift:

All this explains why industrial policy has been, by and large, a taboo subject among American politicians as well as economists. That is, until now. There’s been a recent shift in mood and attitude about the proper role of government in shaping America’s economic desti­ny. There’s a growing fear that limiting government’s role to merely umpiring market mechanisms is hurting both our economic future and our national security. There is a growing belief that policy op­tions beyond market fundamentalism must exist, and that a failure to pursue these alternatives might put us on a different road to serfdom.

Another article in this American Affairs issue is dedicated to the “Socialist revival” in the United States. It’s mainly concerned with the ‘American-style socialism’ of Jacobin and the neo-New Deal ‘democratic socialism’ of Bernie Sanders, noting that these currents bear a curious resemblance to “the debates about a ‘cooperative commonwealth’ waged among Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bel­lamy, Laurence Gronlund, and other nineteenth-century intellectuals prior to the founding of Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party and the rise of industrial unionism”. As with Herman’s essay, this article (written by John Judis of Talking Points Memo) notes that the ideological drift that characterizes the current emerges from a perceived crisis of capitalism. Judis writes that “[t]oday American socialism is not a fixed idea but an expression of deep dissatisfaction with what are seen as capitalism’s values and practices”, while Herman notes that “politicians, academics, and the public are realizing that these assumptions [i.e. those characteristic of ‘neoliberal’ capitalism aren’t working”.

But whereas Judis looks at the rising discontent from below, Herman focuses on the interconnections between American industrial standing and its defensive position, regarded as having entered a retrograde state that puts it at a potential disadvantage with regards to a rising China. “Today”, he writes, “the United States is engaged in a struggle with China that dwarfs the stakes of the War on Terror. In terms of its potential to shape the future, it is a struggle approaching the significance of the Cold War”. One might look at the two papers as this: Judis sees the present resurrection not so much of socialism, but the New Deal, while Herman sees what came after the New Deal—or, more properly, what the New Deal became, or perhaps always was. Here, we have not so much the opposition of populism and technocracy, as normally configured, but their intertwining, at both the level of practical application and at that of historical development.

In some respects this is quite similar to what the paper on 5MS and Podemos stakes out: the authors, Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Accetti, note that while technocracy and populism are often counterposed to one another, in the case of each of these movements, these parameters are completely scrambled. Like classic populist parties they oppose the status quo in a fundamental way, “express[ing] an ‘opposition of principle’ rather than an ‘opposition of issues'”, and take up a distinctly anti-pluralist stance. But like technocrats, they 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. Most importantly, 5MS and Podemos present themselves as “post-ideological”, which opens the space not only for a scrambling of the traditional left and right coordinates of political identity, but serves as the justification for this appeal to higher knowledge. Thus these parties work to resolve the charge—the one commonly made by technocrats!—that populism is intrinsically irrational and driven by emotion by making technocracy the form of articulation for populist content.

Bicker and Accetti go on to note that populism and technocracy do, in fact, bear a series of fundamental similarities:

As Cas Mudde remarked, ‘populism is not necessarily opposed to technocratic measures, particularly if they can help do away with established politicians’. ‘In the populists’ view’, he added, ‘the people should be consulted about the broad parameters of policy, while experts should produce mechanisms to bring this policy about’. Muller has gone further, stating explicitly that populism and technocracy are ‘mirror images of each other’. ‘Technocracy’, he writes, ‘holds that there is only one correct policy solution; populism claims that there only one authentic will of the people aiming at the common good’. As a result, ‘[o]ne might pave the way for the other, because it legitmises the belief that there is no real room for debate and disagreement: after all, there is only one correct policy solution, just as there is one authentic popular will’.

There are, as one might expect, limits to this kind of synthesis. It’s important to not eliminate the chasm that remains between technocracy and populism, between the cool regime of experts and the antagonism of the ‘molten masses’. Margaret Canovan has argued that in democratic societies, a tension exists between what she calls “redemptive” and “pragmatic” modes of politics; in the case of the latter, we have one of the key benchmarks for technocracy, the delicate balancing act a plurality of often-conflicting variables, and in the case of the former, the “redemptive vision” in which “the people are the only source of legitimate authority”. In this prism, the techno-populism of 5MS and Podemos are, at bottom, more populist than technocratic, but when we slip from the inward-facing world of goals and ambitions to the rowdy arena of parliamentary affairs, this populism must be recontextualized by technocratic superiority.

Perhaps to solve the puzzle, one must slip outside this frame, which ultimately treats populism, technocracy, and the mechanism(s) through which they synthesize, to the historical-materialist processes that loom beneath it.


In Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise, Frank Fischer defines technocracy as being intrinsically bound to what he, adopting J.K. Galbraith’s term, describes as the technostructure. For Galbraith, the rise of the technostructure marked a shift from earlier forms of capitalism, where structures of ownership took precedence in terms of daily operation and business organization, to a far more complex, vast, and technologically-integrated iteration where the owner was supplanted by stratas of engineers, technicians, and experts of various stripes. The technostructure is where “all who participate in group decision-making reside”. Fischer, similarly, writes how it “consists of the policy planners, managerial specialists, social scientists, and technologists responsible for processing the information essential to the stable and efficient operation of modern large-scale organizations, in both the private and public sectors”. Bound up in this structure is a prevailing epistemological outlook on the world, rooted in neo-positivism, that sees knowledge as being the only means to reaching a solution to pressing problems: the “technocratic form of consciousness”.

The limits to Galbraith and Fischer’s lines of arguments is that each are incubated in a very specific period of capitalist development: the period spanning the New Deal through the Great Society. This was indeed a time of great transformation, seeing the arrival of a higher degree of unity between the state and capitalism than had been seen in previous eras, the realization of colossal firms and international trading systems, the introduction of computer technologies and system-oriented cybernetic ‘sciences’, and the introduction of the social scientist and revolving door between think-tanks and policy-making circles as a potent political forces. The error, however, is in seeing in these developments an abrupt break in the evolution of the capitalist system: discourses around ‘organized capitalism’ and the ‘managerial society’ threaten (particularly in this latter form) to posit an entirely new mode of production in itself, or at least the inaguration of a ‘post-ideological’ era. It was Daniel Bell who christened this age as the ‘end of ideology’, where development completed its snaking path by discovering moderate management of economic forces and the political management of contesting pluralities.

By contrast, underneath the shimmer of a rising abundance and generalized stabilize (which would quickly be recognized as being oh-so-temporary) was a capitalism that operated in accordance with the same tendencies and meta-structures as it had for centuries. Likewise—and more importantly, for what I’m trying to sketch here—the idea of a divergence between the managerial dimension of capitalism and the ownership of individual capitals is nothing new. This was regarded somewhat critically by Andrew Ure (who I’ve written about before) as far back as 1836, noting in his The Philosophy of Manufactures that

I have known not a few cases, where a complete system of good machines, capable of doing excellent work, has been capriciously turned out of a cotton factory and replaced by another of greater expense, but of less productive powers, and less suited to the style of work, than the old one if skillfully managed. These substitutions are continual in many establishments. They interfere most essentially, and often not necessarily, with the going of the mill, and are referrible almost always to injudicious choice at first—circumstances over which the proprietor, from ignorance of the structure of a good machine, cannot always venture to exercise the proper control. There are by no doubt many mill-managers perfectly fitted by judgment, knowledge, and integrity to second the sound commercial views of the mill-owner, and to advance the business with a profitable career. These practical men form the soul of our factory system.

In the third volume of Capital, Marx takes up this last point of Ure’s—that managers “form the soul of our factory system”—and pushes it much further than previously allowed, all the way to the irrelevance of the industrial capitalist in the face of the rising industrial manager:

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 obtainable. It has, therefore, come to be useless 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 no less redundant as a functionary in production as he himself, looking down from his high perch, finds the big landowner redundant. Inasmuch as the capitalist’s work does not originate in the purely capitalistic process of production, and hence does not cease on its own when capital ceases; inasmuch as it does not confine itself solely to the function of exploiting the labour of others; inasmuch as it therefore originates from the social form of the labour-process, from combination and co-operation of many in pursuance of a common result, it is just as independent of capital as that form itself as soon as it has burst its capitalistic shell.

Marx’s comments here follow directly from reflections on capital’s domination over labor, revealing this emerging obsolescence of the industrial capitalist as an important dialectical reversal in the historical evolution of the system. The manager comes into being right when the necessity of command over labor at a large scale, and coordination between the various branches of a given production process, reveals itself. He writes:

The labour of supervision and management, arising as it does out of an antithesis, out of the supremacy of capital over labour, and being therefore common to all modes of production based on class contradictions like the capitalist mode, is directly and inseparably connected, also under the capitalist system, with productive functions which all combined social labour assigns to individuals as their special tasks.

This industrial manager is the germ of the technocrat, something that is clearly illustrated in analyses of the so-called ‘professional-managerial class’: the transference of the management of the factory, filtered through the consciousness of this particular class position, to that of society as a whole. There are no shortage of studies, for example, of how Taylorization in the factory became social Taylorization, driven by the legions of experts and specialists who arrived on the scene during the Progressive Era. But while this transference might explain the historical content of a shifting terrain of social and industrial development, it doesn’t explain the general cause that made it possible for these people to imprint their stamp upon society in such a spectacular way.

When considering the process that led to the complex division of labor, the introduction of managers, etc, one has to also look at Marx’s distinction between formal and real subsumption, and absolute and relative surplus value. Formal subsumption marked the earlier stages of capitalist development, before it had become the capitalism proper that Marx was analyzing in the bulk of the volumes of Capital. Here is where the figure of the capitalist owner appears for the first time, and one “who was formerly an independent peasant now finds himself a factor in a production procss and dependent on the capitalist directing it, and his own livelihood on a contract which he as commodity owner… had previously concluded with the capitalist as the owner of money”. Yet what is exceptional about this stage of development is that the complex process of production and division of labor had yet to have taken root: “the fact is that capital subsumes the labor process as it finds it, that is to say, it takes over an existing labor process, developed by different and more archaic modes of production”.

In real subsumption, meanwhile,

The social productive forces of labor, or the productive forces of directly social, socialized (i.e. collective) labor come into being through cooperation, division of labor within the workshop, the use of machinery, and in general the transformation of production by 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…

The movement from “absolute” to “relative” surplus value largely tracks along this division. In the case of absolute surplus value, the capitalist extracts surplus value—the value created that is over and beyond what is necessary for the laborer to reproduce their existence—through the indefinite prolonging of the working day. With relative surplus value, however, the capitalist has run into obstacles to this prolonging, most particularly through the rupture of the class struggle and its forceful regulation of the working day. In this movement, the capitalist comes to realize surplus value by increasing the intensity and productivity of labor with the limited labor time, primarily through the help of increased levels of mechanization within the production process. It is by no accident that in the first volume of Capital the chapter on absolute and relative surplus value follows that on large-scale machinery; as Marx writes, “the production of relative surplus value completely revolutionizes the technical process of labor and the groupings into which society is divided”.

The regulation school, led by the French economist Michel Aglietta, has taken this insight to build their theory of capitalist regulation. Marx suggests that, in general, the movement towards formal subsumption and relative surplus value changes the “technical process of labor”—but what is important here is that this remains by no means a static state. Presaging thinkers like Schumpeter, Marx is careful to draw attention to the incessant technological change that continually sweeps across capitalist society: the production of relative surplus value (we’re leaving aside points that absolute surplus value reassert themselves) is continually punctuated by paradigm-shifting innovations. It follows, then, that these innovations themselves alter the composition and organization of labor. From there, the “groupings into which society is divided” themselves undergo a rhythmic modification, shifting and turning with the transformations in the heart of the capitalist machine.

For Aglietta and others, these pulses of innovation open the door to crisis itself. While not forging straight ahead into questions of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (it hasn’t disappeared, only moved to the background), Aglietta sees the problem in terms of the uneven development across the space of Department I (where the ‘means of production of the means of production’ are situated). Because certain sectors or even firms within a given sector will vary in terms of their organic composition and degree of development, the profitability across Department I will also vary—and this Department will exist out-of-joint with the Department II. Because, per the reproduction schemes introduced in the second volume of Capital, successful accumulation of capital proceeds through a largely harmonious development between these two departments, a conflict between them opens up the possibility of stymied accumulation.

This is an account of crisis arriving through disproportion. It might look at first like the underconsumptionist arguments that Marx was so critical of, but there is an important distinction. The underconsumptionist arguments places in the position of the primary the contradiction between the value received by the worker in the form of wages and the value of the commodities that have arrived on the market; in other words, it takes the inability to meet effective demand as the basic problem confronting capital. Marx’s theory, by contrast, moves behind these problems, and targets the source of crisis in overproduction, which appears as the intrinsic tendency of capitalist production. Through the revolutions in productivity and the exploitation of labor, society is swept along by a rising tide of output. Marx concedes that this can occassionally take the form of underconsumption at the level of appearances, by it is by no means a question of effective demand in the first instance. Instead, it is an question of what happens in the titantic collision of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production and the brute anarchy of the market.

For Aglietta, this must be read through the problem of uneveness between technical and social development, understood as a historical process. A particularly illuminating example is his account of the Great Depression, which begins with a growing imbalance between investments in Department I and the social conditions capable of meeting the profit rates required to meet those outlays, and ends with a blizzard of short-term speculation that became increasingly detached from these real, material conditions. The mode of regulation, in turn, is the periodic manifestation of the efforts—materializing the form of institutions, laws, policies, organizational paradigmsand norms—that seek to strike a balance between social development and the development of productive forces (in this case, it would be the New Deal and the sweeping programs that followed in its wake—a great lesson in how a given mode of regulation will always fall prey to the primacy of the capitalist cycle).

It’s through the shifting modes of production that I think we understand of the emergence of the technocrat proper, beginning with the formation of a managerial stratum within the sphere of production, and gradually transferring to public and civil society institutions as the demands for increasingly penetrative modes of regulation begin to hold sway. The higher integration of the sciences within production (described as the “general intellect” in the Grundrisse and the “use of science” as the “general product of social development” in Capital Volume 1) reflects upon the deepening degree to which regulation, broadly understood, takes on the classically technocratic character. Seen from this point of view, technocracy is but the superficial sheen of deeper tendencies that have held sway since the inaguration of the modern epoch.


In The Great Transformation, Polanyi introduces the concept of the “self-protection of society”, a sort of replacement for Marxist theories of class struggle grounded not in the proletariat’s position within capitalist production, but in the communal experience of human social life. In Polanyi’s account, the laissez-faire market is a dangerous myth—utopian, even—that wrecks havok on society as it seeks to ‘disembed’ itself from social regulation. The self-protection of society is the counter-movement that strikes back at this disembedding process, and (if successful) reconstitutes some form of social control over its circumstances.

Without accepting Polanyi’s account in full, it seems to me that something similar is in play when it comes to populism—especially given that some of the historical moments that Polanyi cites as evidence correspond to great populist upswells. Like the self-protection of society, populism doesn’t necessarily form itself along class lines: by swapping class for an abstract notion of “the people”, it comes to exhibit a cross-class character, even one of class collaboration. This is particularly true when it comes the actual application of populist politics, which comes ultimately to petition the ruling class for reforms. It’s chiefly for this latter reason that Zizek famously asserted his opposition to populism as something that wholly diverges from socialist politics (I personally don’t draw such an absolute line between populism and socialism, and at any rate Zizek’s own position then might need to be thought against his current politics).

Another distinction might be that while the socialist movement seeks to draw its energy from the “poetry of the future” (as Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire), populism often positions itself with its face looking to the past, as an expression of discontent for what has been lost. This too falls in line more with Polanyi’s analysis, which finds the self-protection of society serving equally as a politics of self-preservation. It’s this which should be taken as the benchmark of populist politics: the articulation of the singular, homogenous People erected on the basis of a swiftly dissolving ground (this isn’t to say, of course, that this articulation is always expressed through a traditionalist prism).

In the current time, populist discontent often takes as its explicit target the technocratic regime, frequently slipping back from attacking the rule-by-abstraction that is the capitalist form of domination and instead finding in technocracy itself the causes of widespread degradation. This is because the technocrats act as an active accelerant for capital’s permanent reorganization of social life, aiding at every turn to convert previously-held qualities into mere quantities and sweeping aside all old conventions and forms of life in the name of a great harmonic balance. The figure of the technocrat appears before a vanishing world as the great reducer of Spirit, the agent who extinguishes any and all characteristics of sensuous life. From the technocrat’s leveling gaze, the unruly ferment, the ‘molten mass’, can only be seen as an irrational beast to be quickly tamed and corralled back into the comfortable cage of production and consumption.

Yet insofar as it falls back from articulating itself on the basis of class, the populist is compelled to enter into the arena of politics, where the realm of the possible is always going to be curtailed by the intrinsic limitations of the bourgeois state. Whatever grievances it articulates—reforms, particular instances of preservation, etc.—will be folded in the context of the prevailing mode of regulation, the very playground of the technocrat. Thus we arrive at the ubiquity of populist/technocrat hybrid regimes. Take the New Deal: was this a populist or technocratic moment in American history? It was clearly both, with the rule of experts coming in to mediate the demands of the undermasses, to preserve the fragile grip of the bourgeoisie, and to try and realize the impossible dream of a cycle-less economy. This is also the dynamic in play with groups like 5MS and Podemos, and its shadow is cast over whatever mode of regulation is coming into view in contemporary America, where years of populist discontent on both the left and the right gives way to a profound intellectual transformation.

7 thoughts on “Technocracy and Populism

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