The Twilight of the Neoliberal Technocrats

McConnell Center / Flickr

Duane Townsend

Jacobin - February 2017

"Reflecting this mood {of neoliberal technocrats} with unrivaled zealotry was Foreign Policy***’s James Traub, who*** declared last July: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses.” Casting contemporary politics as a struggle not between values or interests, but between “the sane” and “the mindlessly angry,” ..."

Last September, Politico published a long-form feature on Elan Kriegel, Hillary Clinton’s analytics wizard and the principal architect of her campaign’s leviathan data strategy.

One of the highest-paid staff at Clinton HQ in Brooklyn, Kriegel developed a devilishly complex algorithm called “Ada” that reportedly guided all of the campaign’s most critical strategic decisions — from which states to send the candidate and her surrogates to where and when to run ads and invest resources. So panoptic was Ada’s reach that it frequently overrode the judgment and local knowledge of Democratic activists on the ground.

As the election finally reached its denouement, Clinton’s big data algorithm was supposed to be her secret weapon. Instead, just like her candidacy, it proved to be a historic dud.

In the years to come, will the mode of politics that produced both suffer the same fate?

The Crisis of Technocratic Liberalism

Even the most powerful algorithm cannot compensate for the flawed assumptions of its programmers. If the Ada fiasco is an indictment of data-driven politics, it is also a reflection of the values — and deficiencies — of the technocratic liberal ethos that spawned it.

More than perhaps any waged before, the Clinton campaign invested an inexhaustible faith (not to mention considerable financial resources) in the wisdom and effectiveness of experts, its upper echelons dominated by a generation of Democratic insiders steeped in Third Way thinking and analysis.

In word and affect, it spoke the language of white-collar professionals in New Democratic coastal heartlands and showed open disdain for some of the party’s traditional, less affluent constituencies and their aspirations. It eschewed the rhetoric of populist contestation in favor of bipartisan détente with factions in the Republican old guard and gleefully chased the votes of suburban conservatives. It publicly courted both Wall Street and Silicon Valley and proudly touted the support of their leading viceroys. It emphasized personality and qualification, judgment and temperament, over ideology. And had it prevailed as expected, it would have governed accordingly.

In the sum total of its posturing, strategy, messaging, and wounded bemusement in defeat, the Clinton campaign represented the apogee of the liberal center’s technocratic vision in all its shimmering hubris and ultimate, self-defeating futility.

And its loss has hardly been the only one of its kind. Across the advanced capitalist world, formations of both the center-right and center-left have been successively battered and handed a string of defeats at the ballot box.

Last June, British voters rejected the elite script and opted to withdraw from the European Union. Less than a month after Trump’s election, Italy’s unelected caretaker prime minister was forced to resign after somehow failing to persuade voters that they should weaken democracy. In Austria, center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen only narrowly beat back his far-right opponent, Norbert Hofer, and opinion polls continue to give Marine Le Pen a very real shot at becoming the next president of France.

Yet far from reflecting soberly on this near rout, or the failures that may have produced it, devotees of technocratic liberalism have rallied one after another to fortify their orthodoxies.

Senior Democrats like Nancy Pelosi insist that neither policy nor strategy need change and refuse to budge an inch to the economic left. Centrist dogmatists like Jonathan Chait earnestly cling to the exhausted maxims of the Obama era, even as its modest legacy crumbles before their very eyes. Tony Blair, apparently unchastened by any sense of shame, has mused about returning to British politics.

Finding themselves suddenly cornered, liberal technocrats have increasingly lashed out at mass democracy itself, blaming it for Trump’s victory and Brexit, and advocating its enfeeblement as a solution.

Reflecting this mood with unrivaled zealotry was Foreign Policy’s James Traub, who declared last July: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses.” Casting contemporary politics as a struggle not between values or interests, but between “the sane” and “the mindlessly angry,” Traub called for a new centrist project consisting of breakaway chunks of the right and left to defend “pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides.”

All of these examples suggest a political project in profound crisis. But they also offer clues as to its underlying assumptions — and its deepest flaws.

The Technocratic Fallacy

What matters is what works,” Tony Blair proclaimed in 1998, neatly encapsulating the technocratic spirit of the new liberal center (or “Third Way”). Behind the phrase “what works” we find both the essence of this vision and also the key to understanding its cardinal flaw.

In the same speech, Blair variously endorsed “reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic,” including “patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination.” In actualizing these values, he added, “a large measure of pragmatism is essential.”

Each theme signified something many people might vaguely identify with. But among them was not a single example whose precise meaning could not be instantly contested. ...
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