March 15, 2021

This piece, on the weird alliance (stretching back decades, now) between neoliberal technocrat law prof Cass Sunstein and (always technocrat, recently Roman Catholic integralist) law prof Adrian Vermeule is to my mind devastating:

At the heart of Sunstein and Vermeule’s flawed defense of technocracy is the failure to see that this form of politics is not simply a neutral tool for enacting vastly different ideological programs. Technocracy is instead a highly tendentious way to organize society around very specific conceptions of authority, knowledge, rationality, and power.

And yet despite all this — as evidenced in Sunstein and Vermeule’s high-profile, cross-ideological collaborations — technocratic thinking continues to flourish in American universities. Technocracy’s dominance in mainstream social theory is in fact partly an effect of the retreat of the humanities. As critics both inside and outside the university continue to ask humanists to justify the “value” of a liberal-arts education, funding streams are diverted to those whose approach to the knowledge of human behavior is more putatively practical and scientific.

Technocracy flourishes in traditionally humanistic departments like law because its advocates are able to borrow the prestige of the STEM disciplines to bolster their own authority. Claims to a science of human life have in this way helped generate well-funded and ultra-prestigious clusters of technocratic intellectual authorities atop which sit figures like Sunstein and Vermeule, called upon by American presidents. But technocrats, for all their (often spurious) methodological wizardry, cannot easily supplant the cultural and historical modes of explanation of humanists, nor humanists’ respect for the knowledge and agency of ordinary people. Far from being morally and rationally superior, technocracy may be a significant contributor to our inability to properly deliberate upon our political problems.


Now, as a humanist I will be primed to believe this, but I also think it’s true.

Still, I’m interested in how we make this case critically, and how we suggest a vital alternative way of understanding human deliberation and meaning-making.  It seems that positive project still needs to be undertaken.  I've seen some interesting steps in this direction, maybe there will be more.  We certainly need them.