Why Progressives Need To Think Again About The Politics Of Expertise

06/01/2017 16:34 | Updated 06 January 2017
Mary Turner/PA Wire

In the run-up to the UK's referendum on EU membership, prominent pro-Brexit campaigners including Michael Gove publicly rejected the notion that political and economic 'experts' should be trusted by the public. Many political 'progressives' in the left-liberal press and the Twittersphere have responded aggressively that this is foolishness, a path to mob rule or a sort of resurgent Luddism. Last summer the celebrity physicist Professor Brian Cox denounced the anti-expert agenda as a route "back to the cave". This week, a New Yorker cartoon that garnered many re-tweets from anti-Brexit British progressives equated current political trends to allowing a passenger to fly an airliner because the pilots are elitist and "have lost touch with regular passengers like us".

A different kind of expert
But true progressives - people who want serious political and economic change, to create fairer and more equal societies - should be deeply wary of adopting this line on expertise. A fundamental fallacy lies at the heart of these messages and metaphors about expertise: that politics and economics are homologous to natural sciences like physics or aerodynamics, consisting in systems and processes that are governed by predictable causal laws. But being a politician or economist (or, like me, an academic 'expert' in politics) does not entail having the same relationship with physics as a physicist or with the principles and practice of flight that a pilot does.

The knowledge of social scientists is essentially and unavoidably partial, shifting and speculative. Whilst there can indeed be 'experts' in politics and economics, the knowledge we accumulate is necessarily 'value-laden'. As any first year politics student should be able to tell you, on any specific question of politics or economic policy there are always multiple perspectives available depending upon the wider theoretical, ontological, epistemological and hypothetical assumptions you begin from and level of analysis you choose to employ. And since no covering laws of the sort extant in the natural sciences obtain in the social world, we cannot simply prove or disprove these perspectives. Instead, we judge them, socially and morally. 'Bad' political theories and practices, such as fascism, are not bad because of some technical flaw in their interpretation of the laws of social science but because they are morally repugnant.

Politics and economics are social spheres, not natural systems, and as such are produced, re-produced and, occasionally, radically transformed, by our collective everyday actions as members of society. They consist in purposive systems and processes, serving the various interests and preferences of particular social groupings, and individuals, in different ways. So particular policies and economic systems represent particular views about how we should organise ourselves - how best to live together, as societies. These are 'ought', rather than 'is', questions. They are morally loaded and invariably partisan.

Neoliberalism and the naturalisation of bad economics
Yet it is unsurprising that we have arrived at a situation where many who consider themselves leftist progressives are fiercely defending the principle of technocracy, a fundamentally elitist idea. The dominance of neoliberalism from the late 1970s onward has entailed an attempt at depoliticising politics and especially economics. Increasingly hard disciplinary boundaries between politics and economics themselves are one symptom of this change - an attempt to isolate economics as a natural science for exploring, understanding and explaining a natural system. It was not always so. Adam Smith and Karl Marx were scholars of 'political economy', a single disciplinary category, but also unafraid to make pronouncements on philosophy and sociology, at a time when the study of the social world was rather less disciplined. In British politics, the trend toward neoliberal depoliticisation was manifested especially in the growth of 'special advisers' as unelected expert governors, and the insistence that 'there is no alternative' to the neoliberal route of marketisations and privatisations.

Progressives should be resisting the reification of right wing economic policy that has, through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, been enabled by the careful cultivation of the idea that the economy is a natural system governed by laws to which we are all subject. We can, and must, in fact drastically remake our economy, as the crash of 2007-present has urgently shown us. Some political economists - notably Ha-Joon Chang - have emphasised the need for post-crash economics to radically break from the form of economic 'expertise', or rather dogma, that drove us over the precipice. But we can't do this if we continue to take for granted the expertise of the people who got us into this mess. Yes, we should resist anti-intellectualism, but anti-elitism is at the very core of what progressive, left wing politics has always stood for.

Progressive parties and the politics of expertise
Professor Cox was once part of D:Rream, the band who provided the theme tune for Tony Blair's New Labour government, 'Things can only get better'. That government was the most radical proponent of neoliberal political and economic expertise we have seen, going beyond the achievements of its Conservative predecessors. And that is where progressivism in the UK lost its way. The rise of Whitehall's special advisers, mantras like 'evidence-based policy' and the claim that 'ideology is dead' provided the conditions for the current widespread disillusionment with mainstream British politics and for both the rise of Corbyn and the vote for Brexit. The fervently anti-Corbyn New Labourites today insist that Labour is becoming a toxic brand by moving left when the views of the people are moving right. Many of them see a 'harder line' on immigration as a necessary step to reflecting these views. Even Corbyn's camp seems to have been coming around to the necessity of this anti-immigration sentiment.

But the role of political parties and leaders has never been to merely reflect the views of the people, but also to offer them inspiring ideas - to try to win them over to a particular vision of the 'good life'. That is not elitism or paternalism, it's simply politics, by the very oldest of definitions, Aristotle's. The political idea represented by the New Yorker cartoon on the other hand is the equally old, but profoundly elitist, Platonist concept of expert government for a people largely incapable of making good choices. This is a fiercely and explicitly anti-democratic idea, and one which those who consider themselves 'progressive' should treat with the utmost scepticism.

Progressives should be unashamedly contesting right wing ideas, even if those ideas are currently popular among voters. The answer to our present predicament cannot be to hide behind the elitist politics of government by experts, or to embrace the politics of racism that underpins all anti-immigration discourse. Instead, it must be to rally around the left wing principles of radical equality, social justice, internationalism and open mindedness, and to fight with everything we've got, against the odds, to persuade others that these ideas are morally preferable to the alternative. A very real resurgence of fascism is on the march in the US today, and our failure to unite and fight will result in the same here in the UK. It is time for the progressive left in the UK to get back to the critique of elitist social structures that was once is raison d'etre, and to offer a radically democratic alternative to government by experts.