Neither Conspiracy Theorist Nor Technocrat

Neither conspiracism nor technocracy

While the exact processes of “modernity” are still a matter of debate, it is undeniable that both democracy and science have played beneficial roles in creating our modern world.

The nearly universal positive associations that people have with both democracy and science have elevated them beyond the realm of the mere descriptive, and into the realm of moral principles. Democracy and science are not seen as means, but as ideals. It is the better angels of our nature, rather than the devil on our shoulder, that practices them, and we all should work to practice them more perfectly if we want to create a better world.

This idealization of democracy and science has often meant that people treat them as intimately linked, and, indeed, they are. Bertrand Russell rightfully recognized that democracy and science are both “open” methods; each is dedicated to the pursuit of truth through the application of reason as opposed to force. According to Russell, the essence of each was “not in what opinions are being held, but how they are being held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”[1] For democracy and science, the emphasis is on the how, and not the what; the focus is on the means, and not the ends.

While it is true that democracy and science share this common philosophical root, there is a danger in conflating the two too dramatically. Paying too close attention to the similarities between democracy and science can lead to a neglect of an important distinction that is beyond the questions of how and what. Specifically, it is the question of who; that is, who should make decisions in democratic or scientific arenas, and, most importantly, who should make decisions in a political area that strives to be democratic when the nature of the decisions requires a sophisticated and educated understanding of certain scientific facts?

Democracy appeals to the masses. It assumes the “will of the people” is the best means of governing, and that the best way to determine the people’s will is through a majoritarian system. Mass participation is essential. In science the process is flipped. A scientific consensus is not determined by a general vote, but by a general agreement among experts in a given field. What people strive for is not majority rule but the lowest common denominator of agreement among those who are most educated to evaluate the evidence. When issues are contentious in science, scientists win support for their view by appealing to their level of education and the quality of their work, not their popularity. In this way, too much democracy can be a threat to science, and too much science can be equally threatening to democracy. How then are these two ideals to be realized in our modern world without endangering the other?

This article will not attempt to answer this question, but it does emphasize that the question cannot be ignored. The failure to seriously address the question of the who in science and democracy has produced two conflicting social trends, each one, in their own way, antithetical to the philosophical openness that democracy and science value. The first is the various grassroots conspiratorial social movements that include not only an egregious misunderstanding of who has power in society but also a dispensation toward pseudoscientific proclamations. These movements use a mix demagoguery and popular protest to delegitimize scientific and scholarly expertise, especially if that expertise challenges their conspiratorial worldview. In these examples, ideologically driven mass participation is used against democracy by stifling independent thinking and open debate. The second is the rise of technocratic governments. This second trend—which has become frighteningly more common in Europe in the context of the sovereign debt crisis—champions scientific knowhow, but it does so at the expense of a disengaged public. Technocrats claim the mantel of science, but their zeal for using scientific knowhow for all decisions has actually threaten science as a social value. As the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin astutely observed, technocratic governments are another Uroboros that gradually turns against a scientifically literal public: “A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair … its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.”[2]

These two trends are perhaps the greatest threats to freedom in the modern world, not because they are the worst of all possible outcomes, but because they are the most likely to succeed. This is partly because they are threats that the Left is generally unprepared to deal with. Leftwing social movements, especially those of the democratic or libertarian variety, despite all their faults, have been the stalwarts for freedom in modern world. If these movements are to continue they must find creative ways for dealing with these complex threats, and find answers to the difficult questions of power so that their dreams of a libertarian socialist society will eventually become a reality. 

Rise of the Conspiracy Theorists

In his work on nondemocratic regimes, political scientist Juan Linz describes totalitarian states as having three essential characteristics: one, a centralized and monistic power structure; two, a dogmatic and intellectually elaborate ideology; and three, mass participation and actions in the service of the regime’s leaders and ideology.[3] The elements can, and often do, reinforce each other, but the existences of modern conspiratorial social movements (that is, characteristics two and three: elaborate ideologies and mass participation) exist outside and even in opposition to a centralized and monistic power source. If anything, one of the defining features of conspiratorial social movements is that though they have dogmatic ideologies that are immune to scientific evidence and critical inquiry; they have no singular power structure that reinforces this ideology. Rather, the ideology is perpetuated through a particular subculture that exists in a decentralized and spontaneous social terrain. Their uniqueness is in being able to congeal a series of disparate and often conflicting ideas—9/11 was an inside job, vaccines cause autism, the existence of a global “New World Order,” fluoridation and “chemtrails” are used for mind control—into a general framework of analysis without any particularly priesthood doing the congealing.

This does not mean that conspiratorial social movements do not have their own intellectual authorities. In her work The Origin of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains that totalitarian social movements rely on a class of “paraprofessionals” that “created a world of appearances in which every reality in the nontotalitarian world [is] slavishly duplicated in the form of humbug.”[4] Conspiratorial social movements use this same technique of duplication in order to unsettle people’s trust in science, through the elevation of their own paraprofessionals to a status that is equal to, and sometimes well beyond, that of actual experts. The difference, however, is that there is no single government, party, or agency organizing these experts. Rather, the strength of these movements is in their ability to recreate themselves through their own mystique as the victimized rebel, by refusing to be identified with a single entity or group. A perfect example of this is Alex Jones’s own personal media empire. Jones has transformed himself from a marginal radio host involved in fringe issues, into a celebrity of conspiratorial thinking. Despite his climb to fame, Jones has never attempted to form his own political party or grassroots organization to further his conspiratorial agenda. Instead, his influence remains purely cultural. He wins supporters through his dominance on the Internet, his prodigious production of documentaries, and willingness to involve himself with popular celebrities.

The cultural influence of conspiratorial media personalities like Jones may appear as a soft power coup for the irrational, but it is important to recognize that the power of conspiratorial social movements is often not as “soft” as it first seems. Because paraprofessionals and their followers are dedicated to their own particular “humbug,” they cannot succeed through the merits of their scholarship and research. Instead, they must rely on reframing the parameters of scholarly and scientific debates. Conspiratorial social movements recast scientific debates as social struggles where believers of the conspiracy theory are recognized as heroic victims standing up to a ruthless all-powerful cabal. For them, the scholarly rejection of their views is a form political repression, and their feelings of being repressed are played out in order to gain sympathy for themselves and their cause. Once those sympathies are won, a community will form around a particular belief, creating its own identity and sense of inclusion, of “being in the know.” This network makes it nearly impossible for people to change their minds or to question the ideology without experiencing an existential crisis. Their beliefs become a matter of who they are, and they are unable to question them without also questioning their sense of self-worth and integrity.

However, the road to mass popularity for conspiratorial social movements is a precarious one. Sympathy is only effective if the conspiracy theorists can legitimately portray themselves as misunderstood rebels unjustly excluded from society. This portrayal is difficult to maintain if the same people are also riding a wave of popular support. The only way this dissonance between victimization and triumphant heroism can be harmonized is through the constant demonizing of any opposition. The sympathy for the movement can only continue if the fear of the opposition is always present. As Karl Popper pointed out, conspiratorial social movements are always in need of new enemies who are planning even more fiendish conspiracies in order to excuse away the fact that their utopian promises have not materialized.[5] In this way, conspiratorial social movements are forever defined by the conspiracies that they promote. If the all-powerful cabal is ever truly vanquished, then so is their purpose.

This analysis of conspiratorial social movements is common knowledge for much of the Left, but the use of this knowledge is too often only applied to the Right. Its true value is guarding against internal rather than external “humbug.” For example, despite the large scientific consensus that the World Trade Center buildings collapsed because they were hit by airplanes, and not because they were exploded through planned demolition, a sizable portion on the Left believes otherwise. Unfortunately, many members of the Left find kinship and affiliation with the 9/11 Truth movement, with some proud members among their ranks. This is very problematic. Not only does the 9/11 Truth movement deny the scientific consensus regarding the collapse of the buildings; in order to prove that the terrorist attacks were an “inside job” they explain away so much evidence—including Bin Laden’s own admission—that they create a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions. Indeed, the conspiracy that 9/11 “truthers” have constructed elevates the events on September 11th to a position that is beyond history. In their minds, 9/11 is a mythological event whose incredibleness could only parallel the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea. The reality is that although the 9/11 attacks were tragic, in the grander scheme of international crimes, the destruction was marginal. The elevation of 9/11 to such exulted importance that only an all-encompassing conspiracy could have caused it is a roundabout way of implying that American lives are more important than the lives of people in other countries who experience far worse suffering with no active conspiracy on the part of any government.

The Legacy of Technocracy

For some, the latent possibility for totalitarianism within social movements that reject science for ideological based thinking means that society should treat the masses with a degree of suspicion. For them, the solution is to support a more Platonic form of government that keeps the tools of government in the hands of an educated class. In this case, the ideal form of this government is a technocracy that emphasizes scientific expertise over popular will.

The entire concept of a technocracy is based on the belief that the Weberian notion of “instrumental reasoning,” which is so essential to industrial production, can be easily applied to governing people. It is the belief that the hierarchical organization associated with factory management, in particular Fordism, can be transferred to political institutions. In a factory setting, successful businesspersons view their workers as extensions of the machines they operate. The emphasis on “technology” within any technocratic regime indicates not only an appreciation for science, technology, and efficiency but also a dehumanization of workers. It is not only that people with technical knowhow should rule, but also that the ruled should behave as if they are machines.

This governing people as if they are machines means that citizens must become indifferent to their own political destiny. The idea that totalitarian regimes are simply extensions of authoritarian ones is somewhat accurate, but believing that the two exist on a simplistic continuum ignores the unique characteristics of each. Returning to Linz’s taxonomy, whereas a fundamental characteristic of totalitarian regimes is an active population who is ready to sacrifice itself in the service of an ideology, a fundamental characteristic of authoritarian regimes is the creation of a politically apathetic citizenry. Authoritarian regimes actively seek the demobilization of their populations so that they will not interfere with the machinations of elites. In this way, technocratic governments, despite sometimes having democratic provisions, more closely resemble authoritarian regimes than actual democracies. Both authoritarian and technocratic regimes rely on passivity, rather than active support, as the basis of their rule.

In Western nations, the privileges of elites have been maintained within a technocratic framework. In these societies, the public is not necessarily excluded from the government as much as its energies are directed away from mass political participation and into private consumption. The result is an extremely lethargic citizenry, but a very active consumer economy. However, this redirection can only be maintained if the majority of citizens believe in the inherent goodness of their consumerist society. The citizenry must identify with a capitalist ethos and have enough prosperity to make the unlimited access to consumer goods a plausible reality, in order for the technocracy to function.

The irony is that even though a capitalist ethos and material prosperity are ideologically interwoven concepts, the two actually have a tense relationship. The grand purchasing power and economic mobility in the West has been more of an outcome of the struggles against a capitalist ethos, which often emphasizes stinginess in an effort to make us into rational misers, than its celebration. As Marx correctly recognized, the basis of a socialist society is not only in an end to exploitative social relations but also in the creation of material prosperity through technological advances. For this reason, a technocratic government that tries to pacify its population through increasing material wellbeing and supporting technological innovation is in constant conflict with itself. The modern consumerist society was born in the aftermath of the Second War World, when a social democratic consensus engulfed the western world. These societies were capitalistic in their overall structure, but they had many socialistic elements that helped raise the living standards of their populations. The welfare state, with its social safety net, enforced labor laws, and strict financial regulations, forced wealth downward, and this collective sharing of wealth provided people with a prosperity and an explosion in technological innovation unseen in history.

This eventually created a problem for Western technocracies. The more prosperity and leisure time the citizenry had, the easier it was for them to mobilize resources toward political participation. The material prosperity initially used to demobilize the public ended up aiding its mobilization once the appeal of endless consumerism broke down. In many ways, the explosion of radical activism throughout the 1960s and the entire creation of the New Left was a product of this tension. The postwar prosperity provided people with the material means to make social activism possible and a sense of alienation that made it desirable. This combination resulted in the spasmodic social seizures against the consumerist societies. In response to this radicalism, elites sought a doubling down of the capitalist ethos while pursuing structural changes that would trim the material prosperity of the citizenry.

The much discussed “rise of the technocrats” to deal with the political chaos created by Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is frightening, but only for its nakedness. During the crisis the field of economics did not suddenly become so arcane and advanced that only a small handful of specialized bureaucrats and academics could grasp it. Economics, like any other field, does have its technical aspects, but setting the overall priorities of a nation is something that will always be a nontechnical issue. What did change is the willingness of people to act like impassive machines. The French Socialist president Francois Hollande’s dire warning against “dangerous populist excesses” was essentially a rallying cry for European elites to get the rabble inline.[6]

Unfortunately, like with conspiratorial social movements, the inherently problematic nature of technocratic rule remains elusive for parts of the Left. After the death of Margaret Thatcher the popular Slovene social critic Slavoj Žižek wrote an article in the New Statesman calling for a “Thatcher of the Left.” In the article, Žižek quotes Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion that, true to technocratic form, advocated for rule by a “specialized class” that could reach beyond the so-called parochial interests of the masses. Žižek, in his apologetics for political passivity, tries to make the case that most people, including Žižek, actually crave political indifference, thus making proposals for participatory democracy both counterproductive and inherently inchoate.[7] Never mind the fact that the very existence of the article proves Žižek’s desire to be politically engaged, true impassivity does not bother to write for the New Statesman. The fact that for many leftwing anti-capitalists technocracy is only an evil as far as the Right practices it demonstrates the degree in which a capitalist ethos has subverted a democratic one in our society. Even in its opposition, a technocratic mindset rules.

What Is To Be Done

As stated previously this article does not offer a clear answer to determining the question of the who for all situations involving democracy and science, but this does not mean that certain loose principles cannot be established. The perils of both conspiratorial social movements and technocratic rule can be avoided, but they require a more nuanced view of both democracy and science. A powerful leftwing movement does have the potential to turn the tide on both these trends, but only if it is willing to take the necessary steps. First, the Left needs to revitalize a lost appreciation for rationality. For whatever reason defending rationality has become out of fashion among many Leftists who seem to find greater solace in postmodern philosophies, environmental mysticism, communist cults, lifestyle anarchism, pseudoscientific posturing, and conspiratorial fear mongering. This turn away from rationality has been a huge mistake. It has derailed social movements by creating a toady atmosphere among Leftists that eschews self-criticism and independent thinking, and has allowed for the existence of certain “radical” subcultures that mimic all the deprivations of the Right. If the only thing the radical Left has to offer people is another ideologically driven social movement that replaces standards of evidence and diversity of opinion with meaningless neologisms, then working class people are right to stay away.

Second, the Left needs to have a more sophisticated understanding of democracy. Mass participation is essential to democracy, but it is not its sole feature, and the Left should resist attempts to make it into a fetish. The belief that mass participation is the only way to make decisions is a very shallow notion of democracy. Far from challenging all forms of authority, it is a conception of democracy that implicitly gives authority to people who have the best oratorical skills, the most time to attend meetings, and the most willingness to rely on demagoguery to advance their agenda. Complex social organizations retain their democratic nature by realizing the complex nature of democracy. In order to guarantee that all voices are heard, it is necessary to not use mass participation alone, but also have clear rules, a separation of powers, checks and balances, due processes, and, at times, a reliance on expert knowledge.

Understanding and appreciating rationality and the complexity of democracy are essential to forming institutions that can make use of technical expertise without promoting elitism, and support democratic rule without degrading into mob rule. Deepening out understandings of each can help save the Left from itself, but more importantly, it can help solve the question of the who in democracy and science. Doing so will not only create a better Left; it would also be an important and critical step in creating a better world.



[1] Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 15.
[2] Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 31-32.
[3] See Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000).
[4] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 371.
[5] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Oxon: Routledge Classics, 2011).
[6] Quoted from Marco D’eramo, “Populism and the New Oligarchy,” New Left Review 82 (July-August 2013).
[7] See Slavoj Žižek, “The Simple Courage of Decision: A Leftist Tribute to Thatcher,” New Statesman, 17 April 2013.