The Riptide of Technocracy


Jonathan White reviews Jürgen Habermas's The Lure of Technocracy, in The Boston Review:

Like any critique of today’s EU, The Lure of Technocracy must be understood in the context of the political handling of the “Euro crisis.” As the global crisis of private debt was transformed in Europe into a question of public debt, and as concerns regarding the finances of particular countries provoked wider uncertainty about the Eurozone as a whole, EU officials implemented a series of emergency measures to restore order. These ranged from short-term bids to ensure the solvency of individual states (principally through credit facilities and cross-border loans) to deeper efforts to reshape national economies and reduce budget deficits. The latest round of this ongoing crisis management resulted in last summer’s clash between a government opposed to the austerity program (led by Syriza in Greece) and an array of institutions determined to impose it (led by the German government).

In these scenes of institutional redesign, Habermas discerns the “self-empowerment of the European executive.” There is no single institution that goes by this name. Among those Habermas denotes are the European Council, where the leaders of EU member-states gather for major decisions, and the non-elected institutions of the European Commission and Central Bank. Sometimes in concert with the International Monetary Fund, these institutions have enjoyed a level of influence over the handling of the Euro crisis unmatched by national legislatures and the European Parliament. Furthermore, by instituting new monitoring regimes to constrain national budgets—ostensibly rule-based but with much room for discretion—they have ensured the longevity of crisis powers beyond the horizon of the financial crisis.

Technocracy was also a theme of Habermas’s writing in the 1960s and ’70s, but it was a rather different beast then. In that period the ideology of expertise was concertedly in the service of a managed economy: it was a technocracy of the center-left, at least by today’s standards. Its critics, including Habermas and the student protest movement to which he responded, targeted paternalism, hierarchy, and large-scale bureaucracy; the principle of a planned economy was not in question. By contrast, technocracy today must be seen in the service of monetary economics. Its interventions are cast as exceptional actions to address unforeseeable contingencies, not as the normal business of government, and are geared to market stability and a privatized economy rather than the improvement of society more broadly. Today’s critique of technocracy, in short, is a critique of the New Right rather than the Old Left.

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