The Summer 2009 issue of The New Atlantis is now hot off the press and I have a article entitled “Technocracy and Populism” among the mix. The New Atlantis really is one of my favortite journals, always has lots of interesting and cutting edge studies exploring the intersection of science, policy, and political philosophy, and now boasts our own Peter Lawler as a contributing editor. Below is a short excerpt from my piece:
The basic political premise of techno-politics is that the classic question regarding competing claims to rule has been decisively answered. Instead of Platos philosopher king we get his emasculated modern descendant: the rational bureaucrat. The ascendancy of techno-politics also assumes that human behavior has been rendered docilethe victory of administrative science over practical statesmanship is based on an exaggerated version of Montesquieus prediction that a turn to commercial pursuits would usher in a general softening of mores. The turn to benign interests is a turn away from the messier and more obviously political questions that involve the identification of a controversial good and the contest among citizens vying for honor. The incoherence within the technocratic view of political life is that it simultaneously denies a politics based on the love of honor and showers honor upon those who claim a greater share of reason. In contradistinction to honor politics, the rule of management science presupposes men that are easily manageable, subject to domestication, and satisfied by the appropriate calculus of interests. If politics is nothing but the deliberative regulation of benign interest, then the simple rule of administrative competence might actually suffice.
However, there are also men who are driven by more than merely interestthey also want honor and a recognition of their individual importance, and ironically enough, this includes the technocrat. It would be impossible, for example, to describe the debate regarding abortion as a mere clash of intereststhat would not account for the fierce, sometimes violent defense each side offers of its position and corresponding worldview. Human beings are spirited, or have what the ancient Greeks called thumos, that inclination to angrily demand the honor that is owed them and recognized in the political theater. Prudence and genuine public debate are politically necessary because politics is more than the pedestrian management of competing interestsit is the dangerous juggling of angry claims to be praised and blamed.
The sum result of the technocratic presumption that politics is nothing other than hyper-rational game theory is the stark de-politicization of human desirethe crucial importance of the ancient distinction between thumos and more pedestrian desire (epithumia) is discarded for the indiscriminately homogeneous passions of the soul, as Descartes articulates it. From the perspective of classical philosophy, the satisfaction of human desire was always understood to be an inherently political enterprise, not only because of our natural sociability and mutual dependence, but also because human desire itself stubbornly, even angrily, resists being decisively tamed by any soothing, bureaucratic lullaby. If the whole human person is always and necessarily a mix of logos and eros, and sometimes a volatile one, then any attempt to assimilate desire into logos will necessarily fail. The hallmark of modern science when applied to political life is the tyranny of technological reason over those aspects of human experience that defy it; in this way, Descartes flipped Ciceros famous dictum that it is often the nature of politics to defeat reason on its head. The dream of modern science is the absolute victory of human reason over an incomprehensible and indifferent cosmos, of which the chaos of human political life is an exemplary microcosm.