The Eclipse of the Democratic Delusion

Sunday, 19th August 2018

No post-agrarian society has ever transferred all power to the people, but some have been fairly successful at involving broad cross-sections of their populace in the decision-making process through stage-managed consultation exercises. At various stages in history we may have fleetingly entertained the illusion of people power in workers’ councils set up in the midst of revolutionary uprisings or in experimental communes, but sooner or later new elites would emerge as most practical day-to-day decisions have to be delegated to professionals well versed not just in their field of expertise, but in the nuts and bolts of an interconnected system. The trouble with complex societies reliant on modern technology to help us overcome nature’s limitations is our growing dependence on external forces over which we only have theoretical control. The managerial classes, usually specialised much more in arts or liberal studies than hard science, have long endeavoured to isolate and tame the intellectually gifted engineering classes by rewarding them handsomely for their excellence, but limiting their remit to a small piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle. If your field of expertise is developing the encryption software for remote access locks purportedly to protect home owners, you cannot be held responsible if your application is used for nefarious purposes, e.g. enabling the police to gain easy access to the private properties of political dissidents.

A key component of the social pact that emerged in most Western (and some Eastern) countries in the four decades following the historical watershed of the Second World War was the enlightenment concept that all human beings are equally valid. Whoever we may be, we all have our needs, feelings and, most important, sense of self. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a mere street cleaner or the CEO of a large enterprise, you have just one vote in a democratic consultation. In theory the street cleaner is as free to express her views and campaign for her political ideas as a multibillionaire. In practice business leaders can buy influence through their control of the media, funding of academia and lobby groups. Corporations can literally buy the opposition and bankroll campaign groups whose deceptively progressive causes may have hidden agendas.

However, nobody could pretend for long that we are all the same. Arguably our advanced civilisations would fall apart if we were all perfectly homogenised clones devoid of independent thoughts, unless there were some upper tier of more self-aware and analytically minded engineers, whether human or just humanoid robots. In many ways we have replaced earlier deference to our religious and royal leaders with our worship of celebrity opinion leaders and technocratic gurus. Just as we try to sell ourselves the illusion of parallel social progress and material growth, we become forever more dependent on technology few understand. Yet is it unreasonable to ask if we can demand endless entitlements without assuming attendant responsibilities or if we can exert any meaningful control over our labyrinthine system without actively participating in its administration (a task which requires detailed knowledge of complex scientific issues)? In the past we could hold our masters to account by threatening to withdraw our labour. A lorry driver may not have a degree in nuclear physics, but until recently transport workers played a key role in the functioning of finely tuned system. Now it’s only a matter of time before all but the shortest deliveries will be made by driverless vehicles or drones. Robots may malfunction, but they do not consciously decide to withdraw their labour. A faulty robot can easily be repaired or replaced without any concerns about its welfare or feelings.

Epistocracy or Expertocracy

Recent democratic consultations in the UK, US, Italy, Austria and Eastern Europe have yielded results that have disappointed the more metropolitan intelligentsia. Yet rather than overtly overturn the democratic will of the people, global elites have preferred to exert gentle economic pressure on their elected leaders to guide each country towards global governance, albeit with some degree of localisation. When voters fail to endorse elite policies, the establishment media will dismiss their politics as populist. Some on the wishful-thinking kum-ba-yah left struggle to understand why the descendants of the local working classes oppose progressive policies such as welcoming more immigrants and greater cultural diversity or embracing the redefinition of families and genders. More surprising is the finding that low to middle income workers are growing sceptical of the benefits of more welfare dependency, as they see their workless neighbours earn more on state handouts than they get toiling away 40 or more hours a week. Sadly as smart automation replaces medium-skill jobs, industrious strugglers will either have to retrain in more intellectually pursuits, a transition that’s not easy, or give up and join the growing welfare classes. This begs the question if ruling elites will allow mere consumers with little expertise in any scientific field any meaningful say in the way society is run. And by scientific fields I do not just mean nuclear physics or biogenetics, but social sciences. In the recent debate on gender theory, we’ve seen the way influential lobbies treat the views of laypersons. If most commoners believe there are only two biological sexes and thus only two accompanying gender roles because that reality is deeply embedded in our collective psyche and confirmed by our everyday experiences, then anointed opinion leaders see it as their duty to educate us. Experts used to mean specialists in particular fields who may share their knowledge with the rest of us so we can make more informed choices. However, experts are often wrong, either because their expertise is too narrow or because their bosses want to pursue an ideological agenda. An expert working for a large organisation is more likely to consider the common good of society than personal needs as people become little more statistics and their bosses are more concerned with maintaining social order than empowering individuals.

Modern multi-party democracies with universal suffrage are a relatively recent development. For much of history parliamentary politics was a game mainly for the landed gentry. Even in the USA the franchise was limited to property owning men until reforms in the late 19th century. As recently as 1970, not only was the whole of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain with only state-managed political parties, but Spain, Portugal and Greece all had paternalistic dictatorships that preferred occasional plebiscites with state-managed media over pluralism with a free press. One may reasonably argue that ruling elites only allow multi-party democracy when they can tame their populace and contain radical dissident to the fringes by providing widespread prosperity and social cohesion through inclusive cultural values. This made sense in an age when advanced societies relied on the efforts of most working-age adults. If society could no longer function without the specialised endeavours of most pre-retirement adults, its managerial classes had both to reward and to respect their underlings. Back in the 1970s key groups of skilled workers could literally bring the country’s economy to a halt. While that may inconvenience ordinary people with disruptions of essential service like electricity, railways or coal supply, many could still recall coping with much worse mishaps during the Second World War, in its immediate aftermath or even during natural disasters such as the harsh winter of 1946 / 47. People were still prepared to make do with temporary hardships for the greater good. Business leaders and state planners knew that in order to keep the economy afloat and retain their privileged positions, they had to make concessions to organised labour. While unskilled or semi-skilled workers can be easily replaced, skilled professionals rely on years of hands-on experience as well as a mindset and culture that promotes technical excellence. Many of today’s brightest college students do not learn practical engineering skills, but rather how to manage engineering projects, treating the many tricky technical tasks that past generations took countless years to learn as little more than abstract academic subjects. The trials and tribulations of a ship welder gain the same strategic importance as dealing with the mental health of a former employee of a typewriter factory who has failed to transition to a new trade. If a job is both mission-critical and cannot yet be automated, project managers have to deal with human resources. The terminological shift from workforce, personnel or staff to human resources reflects a move away from lifelong professions, often working the same company for most of one’s working life, to temporary agency work. This works well for some intellectually demanding and highly dynamic professions such as software developers. Your market worth depends not just on your portfolio of experience, but also on your proven ability to learn new programming techniques and frameworks. If you’ve specialised in Cobol and refuse to learn any more modern programming languages, you may find your employability wanes over the years, while if you combine your knowledge of outdated technology stacks with more modern frameworks you may well get a lucrative gig migrating a legacy code base to a more efficient, versatile and powerful modern system. Sadly, there is dwindling demand for hyperactive code monkeys who keep, figuratively speaking, reinventing the wheel. Why would you pay someone to solve a problem that has been solved thousands of times before or has a specialised shortcut function of your framework of choice? The only logical answers is that the code monkey is unaware of simpler time-saving options or the project manager has little idea of what the human resource is actually doing. It’s usually a bit of both, but often managers will prefer mediocre, but docile, developers over accomplished software engineers whose ingenuity may win them too much power. As time goes by, we can only expect ever greater levels of specialisation in emotional and analytical intelligence to the exclusion of mediocre all-rounders, who have no niche competitive advantages in any endeavour that cannot be assigned to artificially intelligent robots.

Whereas the working classes once meant most economically active adults on low or medium pay, in the near future it may refer to a privileged group of professionals whose talent is mission-critical. Many others may be employed in some perfunctory roles as customer support advisors or lifestyle awareness raisers, mainly to humanise our interaction with a machine-operated system. Such auxiliary workers are expendable. A supermarket with automatic checkouts, RFID-tagged products and shelf-stacking robots could with current technology already run smoothly without human resources, but most customers still like to interact with real flesh-and-blood human beings, whose roles will only be advisory.

Let us just imagine what would happen if all social workers and health and safety inspectors went on strike. Would the economy grind to halt? Would vital services be interrupted? Would there be an instant breakdown in law and order? The answer is in the short-term nothing would change, but over time the managerial classes would have to find other means to monitor their finely tuned system.

The problem with Marxism

Marxist theory foresaw a class struggle in which the workers would rise up to overthrow their capitalist bosses and seize control of the commanding heights of the economy. We may debate whether this could ever have been achieved without transferring power to a new ruling elite or destroying an economy dependent on the technological innovation of highly motivated skilled professionals, but the steady decline of the proletariat as a proportion of the population may soon make this controversy rather academic. This begs the question what pressure can the welfare-dependent classes exert on the technocratic and administrative classes?

I suspect our rulers will keep alive democratic consultations in some form, but that professional policy makers and opinion leaders will restrict mainstream debate to a narrow range of policy options. All other perspectives will be labelled extremist, reactionary or delusional and at odds with official sources of scientific truth. Slowly but surely the professional elites have begun to treat populist opinions, e.g. favouring traditional two-parent families or compact nation states, as mental health issues that they need to address with better education and more extensive social surveillance. All four main parties in the Scottish Parliament support what we can best call the progressive agenda, with a few of caveats to placate conservative popular opinion. Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservative Party has not only championed gay rights as newly wed lesbian women expecting her first child from the local fertility clinic, but she has argued vociferously for high levels of net migration and continued membership of European Union. In effect social conservatives in Scotland have no elected representatives. Yet a recent opinion poll in the Sun found that only 15% of Scottish youngsters between the ages of 18 and 25 wanted higher levels of immigration and most wanted a reduction, although the effects of mass migration are much less pronounced in provincial Scotland outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. I wonder what percentage of Scottish parents welcome their government’s decision to teach gender theory (the idea that gender is a social construct and you can choose your gender identity) to primary school children. I suspect it may be even lower than 15%, but this policy is supported by over 80% of parliamentarians and the official Conservative position is we should wait until children are 8 rather than introduce such concepts as young as 5 years of age.

Jason Brennan calls this new form of rule by the enlightened elite Epistocracy formalising the current roles of unaccountable policy planning institutes in setting the agenda for the infantilised masses, whose disapproval in any consultation exercises may only temporarily slow the pace of change and prompt social engineers to adjust their persuasion strategies. That's why complex subjects such as migration are often reduced to feelings rather than objective analysis of decades of social research. By emotionalising complex subjects and artificially creating new victim groups, opinion leaders can dismiss thoughtful dissent as hate speech.

Once we have defined progress as a transition to a technocratic utopia, in which human feelings are treated as medical conditions and all human interactions are micromanaged to ensure social stability and protect the interests of the professional elites, we need only debate how to persuade the masses to accept their new engineered reality.

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