My notes on Hudson, M. (2018). Ending technocracy with a neologism? Avivocracy as a conceptual tool. Technology in Society, 55, 136-139.

What does it mean to call someone technocratic? In this intriguing paper, Marc Hudson observes that the term is “thrown about as a term of abuse, but without a clear alternative other than ritual(istic) invocations of the need for citizens to be involved in decision making” (136). The common understanding of the term is clear enough, “derived from Greek words τέχνη, tekhn meaning skill and κράτος, kratos meaning power”:

Technocracy is commonly understood as a type of governing/administration where everything is built upon self-proclaimed fully rationalised (and ideally evidence-based policy) and methods, in which all decisions and actions claim to be based upon scientific and technological knowledge. (136)

But without an antonym, it’s hard to see what is at stake is using the designation and it muddies the war rather than clarifying matters. It is a term that almost always has negative connotations and is used near exclusively by critics of (what they define as) technocracy. A moralistic and pejorative term of this sort is likely to be dismissed by many of those who tend to be defined as technocrats, leading to the ironic state of affairs that it’s a framing which actually empowers those it intends to critique because “because it enables them to dismiss critics as merely moralistic” (136). Hudson therefore seeks an antonym purged of this moralism, able to demoralise claims about sustainability and position them as fully rational alternatives to the status quo. He lays out the case against technocrats on 137:

Technocrats are criticised as actors who – by preventing certain
ideas, values and their advocates entering the rooms where decisions
are being made – institutionalise epistemic injustice, and use
‘practicality’ as an intellectual baton

The core complaints about technocracy are familiar: the hubris of technocrats, their lack of accountability, their depoliticising effects. However it still leaves the question of the antonym of technocracy, with Hudson convincingly arguing that “the term democracy has become so emptied of meaning that on its own it does not act as an adequate antonym to technocracy”, even when qualified as monitory or deliberative (137). He considers a range of other possibilities: Luddism (rejected because of its pervasive, if inaccurate, connotations of technophobia), Holacracy (retaining the impulse towards control but channeling it through self-organised teams rather than a bureaucracy) and Permaculture (building stability through the modelling of natural processes, providing little vantage point from which to problematising technocracy). For this reason he reaches for a neologism:

With the existing possibilities inadequate, what is needed is a word that refers to a form of rule by capturing the importance of acknowledging irreducible uncertainty, ambiguity and uncontrollability, beyond the usual blandishments about a ‘risk society’. A word is needed which espouses cognitive humility, acceptance of limitations (something some policymakers struggle with – and the need for “clumsy organisations” to deal with wicked problems and super wicked problems. (137)
Avivocracy is intended to capture “the need for an acute awareness of the limitations of our ability not merely to see the world, but to control it” (138). It encompasses ”

the efforts of reflexive governance, adaptive governance, flux ontology, grassroots resilience, monitory democracy, transitions management (rightly understood) and
other ways of advocating reform of existing sclerotic and not fit-for-purpose institutions” (138). Democratising implications follow from this but it is a consequence rather than a cause with the weigh of avivocracy resting in an orientation to “the permanent, irreducible and escalating uncertainties of twenty-first century human civilisation” (138). If technocracy seeks to control, shut down or transcend these uncertainties, avivocracy seeks to cope with them and grow through them. It is not anti-technogical but rather suggests an orientation towards technology.

In Naomi Klein’s new book No Is Not Enough, there’s a lucid overview of the intersection between political and environmental crisis. The role of drought in fermenting the conditions for the Syrian civil war was something which Marc Hudson first explained to me last year. From pg 182-183:

The irony is particularly acute because many of the conflicts driving migration today have already been exacerbated by climate change. For instance, before civil war broke out in Syria, the country faced its deepest drought on record—roughly 1.5 million people were internally displaced as a result. A great many displaced farmers moved to the border city of Daraa, which happens to be where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought was not the only factor in bringing tensions to a head, but many analysts, including former secretary of state John Kerry, are convinced it was a key contributor.

In fact, if we chart the locations of the most intense conflict spots in the world right now—from the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq—what becomes clear is that these also happen to be some of the hottest and driest places on earth. The Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has mapped the targets of Western drone strikes and found an “astounding coincidence.” The strikes are intensely concentrated in regions with an average of just 200 millimeters (7.8 inches) of rainfall per year—so little that even slight climate disruption can push them into drought.

In other words, we are bombing the driest places on the planet, which also happen to be the most destabilized. A frank explanation for this was provided in a US military report published by the Center for Naval Analyses a decade ago: “The Middle East has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).” When it comes to oil, water, and war in the Middle East, certain patterns have become clear over time. First, Western fighter jets follow that abundance of oil in the region, setting off spirals of violence and destabilization. Next come the Western drones, closely tracking water scarcity as drought and conflict mix together. And just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought—so, now, boats follow both. Boats filled with refugees fleeing homes ravaged by war and drought in the driest parts of the planet.

Surely these intersections should be at the forefront of how we imagine social processes? I realise there are many reasons why this isn’t the case but the one I’ve been pondering is the sustained hold of the nature/society distinction. If we see nature and society as distinct domains, we’re liable to be blind towards the environmental factors at work in social catastrophe. Only an idiot would deny the relationship in principle but the effects are projected into the future, as an expected horizon in which the natural will impact upon the social. But in doing so, their present entanglement with all the consequences flowing from this, comes to be lost in the analysis of events which are interpreted as narrowly political.

From Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, loc 234-246:

the key question surrounding climate change is not whether climate change is occurring, but rather who will survive the change. Even in the worst-case scenarios, scientists are not arguing that the Earth will become totally uninhabitable. What will happen—and is happening—is that struggles over space and resources will intensify as habitats degrade. In this context—and particularly in concert with the technological trends discussed above—it may be possible for a small elite to continue to pollute the planet, protecting their own comfort while condemning most of the world’s population to misery. It is that agenda, not any serious engagement with climate science, that drives corporate titans in the direction of denialism.

This is the debate which the Financial Times says has been prompted by Mark Carney’s intervention on climate change earlier in the week. His point seemed rather incisive to me, observing that “Since the 1980s the number of registered weather-related loss events has tripled” and that furthermore “Inflation-adjusted insurance losses from these events have increased from an annual average of around $10bn in the 1980s to around $50bn over the past decade”. Given the climatological evidence suggests that “challenges currently posed by climate change pale in significance compared with what might come”, it’s a systemic issue for insurance which needs to be addressed. His concern stems from what he terms the tragedy of the horizon:

We don’t need an army of actuaries to tell us that the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the traditional horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation has no direct incentive to fix.
That means beyond:
  • the business cycle; 9
  • the political cycle; and
  • the horizon of technocratic authorities, like central banks, who are bound by their mandates.
The horizon for monetary policy extends out to 2-3 years. For financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade. 10
In other words, once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.

As someone who is instinctively and reflectively hostile to technocrats, this strikes me as one of the strongest arguments it is possible to point to for the value of such figures. Their appointment frees them from narrowly political concerns, facilitating interventions which would be constrained by, among other things, the temporal horizons of other actors. This ‘freeing’ is both narrow and shallow. It is also a profoundly political act in its own right, representing a crucial strategy for placing increasing portions of economic questions beyond political scrutiny. But an adequate sociology of technocrats should recognize that insulating policy from politics will tend, all other things being equal, to grant a degree of freedom to the policy maker which is lacking for the politician (though indeed many other constraints may follow from the institutional arrangements in which the technocrat is embedded).

I find the reaction to Carney’s speech curious because I find his intervention itself so plausible. But some have argued that this ‘over-reach’ risks politicizing his role in a way that would lead appointees to be made on the basis of political criteria in future. The interesting question becomes whether such criteria might be applied to other technocrats whose role within contemporary Europe I find much less persuasive. Can we see a nascent elite cultural reaction against the encroachment of technocracy in Europe over recent years? Or is ‘over-reach’ simply what technocrats do when one disagrees with the views they are espousing?