If Populists Are Wrong, Technocrats Aren't Right

(Bloomberg View) -- Africa is “rising,” or so authoritative sources declared a few years ago. An Economist cover story in 2013 amplified the claim; the Wall Street Journal carried a series of articles on economic growth in Africa under this title. African “lions,” according to a report published as recently as September by the McKinsey Global Institute, are “on the move.”

Yet there’s also growing skepticism, summed up by the headline of a New York Times report last month: “‘Africa Rising’? ‘Africa Reeling’ May Be More Fitting Now. Four countries that appeared to be rising -- Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia -- are now either receiving or seeking IMF bailouts. One of Africa’s most vicious civil wars has erupted in South Sudan, the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2013. David Pilling, Africa Editor of the Financial Times, correctly pointed out in March this year that “the only thing we know about African economies is that we do not know much at all.”

Why then do experts speak so confidently about issues that are fundamentally murky? That raises another, more troubling question: Are those who make influential assessments accountable, and to whom, when they are revealed to be wrong?

Such questions have become particularly urgent because populists uttering mostly falsehoods have made themselves look more reliable than technocrats. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove, one of the chief Tory Brexiteers in Britain. Unleashing a blizzard of false claims, the campaign for Brexit actually demonstrated the necessity of accurate knowledge. Donald Trump has further illuminated the perils of “post-truth politics.”

Yet, as Sebastian Mallaby, the recent biographer of the uber-expert Alan Greenspan, wrote recently, “Both Gove and Trump sensed, correctly, that experts were primed for a fall.”

Expert governance has flourished like never before in recent decades. This is because political and social life has been increasingly driven by economic considerations of utility, efficiency and profit. Even political figures, keen to be judged on their economic competence, now speak the language of experts and technocrats.

Those concerned about the health of democracy must reckon with the extraordinary influence of technocratic expertise. For, as David Kennedy, a legal scholar at Harvard, argues in a brilliant new book, “The World of Struggle: How Power, Law, and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy,” experts only appear to be describing pre-existing economic and political worlds.

In reality, they bring such worlds into being by defining their central meaning and objectives. And they do so after an actual struggle with contending viewpoints. Far from being benignly neutral, they engage in fierce contests for “wealth, status and opportunity” that have clear winners and losers.

Many people, for instance, questioned the Africa Rising narrative. But the experts who built the fable’s inner coherence also successfully shaped political and economic decision-making. A despotic leader like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame relies upon the consensual logic of these reality-makers when he presents himself to the West as ably stewarding his country’s economic “rise.” If the experts say that the “knowledge economy” constitutes the future of humanity, even oil-rich Qatar will scramble to create one, and will of course rely upon experts to achieve it.

The problem is that much expertise isn’t open, unlike politics, to public debate. Generated and received in echo chambers, it tends to rely on blunt assumptions: There is no alternative and this is how the world is. Often the world turns out to be something else. But by then the expert has moved on -- usually to getting that something else wrong.

Long before they spotted Africa, the experts declared that India was rising. According to the wisdom of the day, a manufacturing revolution would soon bring India on level with China. Little attention was given to the possibility that India might be facing what the economist Dani Rodrik calls “premature deindustrialization” -- in which manufacturing jobs are lost to automation and other factors before factories are even built -- or that, as in Africa and Latin America, jobless and wildly uneven economic growth would prepare a fertile ground for demagogic politics.

Today, it’s as unclear as ever if Qatar can build a knowledge economy, or if the Indian tiger and the Rwandan lion will roar all the way to industrial capitalism. Nevertheless, policy-making and opinion-forming experts will remain indispensable to all these ongoing ventures. Retailing their expertise, they will continue to benefit from their main advantage: what Kennedy calls the “relative invisibility and imperviousness of the world of technical management to contestation.”

Angry populism is hardly the right answer to such shadowy expert governance. But it’s precisely to avoid this nasty blow to democracy that technocrats must become more visible, and less impervious to scrutiny.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net.