Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Technocracy and Politics in a Trajectory of Conflict*

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Technocracy and Politics in a Trajectory of Conflict*

Article excerpt

I am not a politician. . . . I am a technocrat and believe in technocracy, and technicians are politically neutral.

(Raúl Prebisch cited in Dosman 2008)

With social thought turning so rapidly into attempted social engineering, a high incidence of failed experiments is the price that is often paid for the influence intellectuals wield.

(Hirschman 1979, 86-87)

Technocracy, signifying the use of technocrats in economic decision-making (rather than the more precise but rarely encountered rule by technocrats), has had a curiously troubled relationship with politics. At first glance that seems unlikely. On the one hand, politics, in the shape of states and regimes, needs technocracy for complex policy formulation that is fortified and legitimized by expert knowledge, methodical applications, and rea- soned expectations. Technocracy, on the other hand, needs politics, that is, the sanction of power, to insulate it from pressure and interference that would prevent technocrats from being deployed or heeded "without fear or favor" as the old cliché goes.

In reality their apparently symbiotic relationship contains a latent conflict. The conflict is readily seen in certain forms. Sometimes seemingly technical recommenda- tions may be rejected and the technocrats associated with them ejected from their posi- tions for running afoul of the powers that in principle insulate them from interference. At other times, technocrats find themselves arraigned against vested interests that cir- cumvent or sabotage technocratic forms of governance. Or else, popular resentment against apparently rational policies may erupt into anti-regime protests that are put down by repressive measures. Yet, the conflict lies deeper. Politics depends on technocracy for expert inputs and calculated outcomes in order to embed the exercise of state power in many kinds of agendas, policies, decisions, and programs. Thus, any functioning tech- nocracy operates as an appendage of politically constructed structures, institutions, and configurations of power. At certain levels of work and in circumscribed situations, socio- economic problems may require no more than technical solutions. Beyond that, it is illusory to conceive of highly placed policy-making technocrats as backroom boys (and girls) whose task is to prepare disinterested rational-technical solutions to problems of economic planning, resource allocation, and social distribution, each of which is inherently a political matter.1) The potential for conflict is especially high when technocracy is inserted into policy-making and technocrats emerge as an identifiable force under critical circumstances-during periods of rapid social transformation, in conditions of severe economic restructuring, or at moments of political crises-when the technocratic is unavoidably political.

This article traces a post-World War II trajectory of tension and conflict between technocracy and politics, mostly in what used to be called the "underdeveloped" world. Within that trajectory the relationship between technocracy and politics had several dimensions. These included changes in the projects of economic transformation-from modernization and development to debt and crisis management to economic stabilization and structural adjustment, and the neoliberal reconfiguration of the global economy-for which technocracy was co-opted. As such, technocrats themselves assumed different roles, being planners, implementers, managers, brokers, and intermediaries. The condi- tions of technocratic deployment and the hopes of their outcomes changed, too: visions of postcolonial development collapsed under structural adjustment while state interven- tion was reduced to neoliberal good governance. At the beginning of the trajectory was an issue that preoccupied regimes and technocrats: how should technocratic decision- and policy-making be insulated from vested interests or popular pressure? At its end has arisen "technocratization" or fusion of technocracy and politics as a way to overcome the conflicts that made each of them the bane of the other. …

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