The Technocratic Elite
21 December 2014
One of the most fascinating aspects of civilization is how, despite thousands of years of development, radically different social, economic, and political systems, and the rapid growth of technology since the industrial revolution, there are structural features of civilization that do not change in essentials over time. (I have previously discussed these civilizational invariants in Invariant Social Structures, Invariant Properties of Civilization, and Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios.) One of these invariant structural features is social hierarchy, and more specifically the fact that, all throughout history, a tiny fraction of the population has been in a position of political control, while the vast bulk of humanity has been subject to the control of a small minority.
The existence of a power elite, as a civilizational invariant, implies that there is always a power elite in every civilization, though this power elite may take different forms in different civilizations, and throughout the history of a given civilization the power elite may shift among individuals, among families, among ideologies, among industries, and even among social classes. From the perspective of the big picture, who happens to hold power in a given society is a mere accident of history, and the interesting feature is that there is always a small elite that holds power.
The “big lie” of our time is that the power elite that currently graces our society is in its position as the consequence of meritocratic mechanisms that assure only the best will achieve the pinnacle of power. Thus the ancient idea of aristocracy (rule by the best) is preserved, but given a contemporary, democratic twist in the assurance that anyone can be selected by these social mechanisms for advancing and rewarding talent. Now, this “big lie” is no worse than any other big lies around which societies have been constructed — no worse, for example, than Plato’s “noble lie” — but no better either.
We may call the power elite who benefit from this “big lie” of industrial-technological civilization the technocratic elite. They are few in number, and essentially oligarchic. (A recent study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, reported on the BBC in Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy; many studies have demonstrated similar findings.) That our elite is a technocratic elite does not reflect upon the quality of individuals who belong to the elite, but rather the kind of civilization that happens to arbitrarily raise up a few individuals into positions of power. The nature of this civilization is such that it shapes its power elites in particular ways that are enabled by the technological means of mass control.
It is not difficult to spot the technocratic elite (apart from the obvious fact that they appear on the news and on the glossy color covers of magazines). They are in excellent health and are dressed well, though in an understated style. Good food and good clothes are expensive. One must also have the leisure to be able to care about such things: they have time to exercise and to eat right. Just the right amount of education in just the right schools to give just the right mid-Atlantic accent accounts for the elocution and steady, careful tone of voice. They have been taught to express superficial concern for the lives of others, and they spend just the right amount of time on just the right charities to achieve just the right amount of media exposure for their time investment. These are not qualities of the individual, but rather qualities conferred upon the individual by their unique position in a technological society.
In A Thought Experiment in Tyranny I asked:
“If the president of a given nation-state belongs to a class of wealthy, world-traveling, foreign language-speaking elites with more in common with other elites than with the people of the nation-state in question, is this local rule or foreign rule?”
While from the perspective of the ruled it matters immensely (and is sometimes a pretext for revolution); from the perspective of the technocratic elite it is irrelevant. The particular nation-state of their citizenship or their government service is indifferent, because wherever they live or serve or invest, they will have the same privileges, advantages, and immunities.
We can think of the technocratic elite as the system administrators of the universal surveillance state, although the particular nation-state for which they are the custodians of surveillance are indifferent. We know that blocs of nation-states freely share their intelligence along elites — for example, within NATO, and more freely yet among the “Five Eyes” of Anglophone intelligence services. Thus while nominally loyal to the interests of a particular nation-state, the technocratic elite are in fact loyal to the international system of nation-states and the vested interests that this system represents. That same anarchic individualism that the procedural rationality of the universal surveillance state seeks to suppress, or, at least, to channel and control, is manifested at a higher order of magnitude among nation-states in the anarchic nation-state system that has been and is becoming institutionalized in international institutions (cf. State Power and Hypocrisy).
The masses can be bought off by the contemporary equivalent of bread and circuses — i.e., food stamps and mass entertainment — they can be be distracted and redirected by a barrage of trivia called “news,” and they can be seduced into passivity by relatively easy working conditions and cheap consumer goods. The middle classes can be bought off by better consumer goods, new luxury cars, and large houses. The more ambitious among the middle classes can be buried under the debt that they acquire in order to acquire the credentials that will secure the social mobility that they desire. The limiting mechanisms of social control assure that there is very little social mobility into or out of the elite class itself, however much social mobility into or out of the middle class, or within the various levels of the middle class, may occur.
In a world of seven billion people, there are only a finite number of Ferraris, Armani suits, and oceanfront mansions; these finite goods are allocated according to a system of privilege intrinsic to the technocratic nation-state. While a member of the middle class may move up in status and wealth and eventually acquire such goods as they may purchase (the best consumer goods, lying beyond the means of most of the middle class, who can afford only better consumer goods beyond the means of the masses), in the big picture these goods are merely decorative, and they may serve to confer status without real power to those who are most deeply invested in the status quo of our society. They have done what is expected of them, and they are rewarded for their loyalty and hard work. They also serve as models for the masses and the less successful middle classes. This is the institutional true believer, i.e., the individual who gives himself or herself to the state, and the state in turn gives to the individuals who have identified their interests with those of the institution in question the rewards due to their station. (I have previously written about such individuals in A Third Temperament.)
It is not difficult to recognize such institutional true believers. Foucault now appears as much a prophet as a philosopher, as he noted that in the change from right of death to power over life, such men are “no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death.” This is now literally true with the special place that healthcare holds in industrial technological civilization: religion once held out hope of salvation in another world; medicine now holds out hope of salvation in this world. With the PPACA and its individual mandate forcing everyone into the medical-industrial complex, doctors will become the agents of the universal surveillance state. Many medical institutions have already done so, voluntarily and enthusiastically. And this should not surprise us. Being an agent of a powerful entity means access to power, and access to power means privilege. They, too, can reap the material rewards of their special position in society.
Yet in a world of ever more available consumer goods, privilege is increasingly expressed in the form of intangibles. In the information-driven world of industrial-technological civilization, information is power, and access to privileged information is not only restricted to privileged individuals, but the very act of restriction on information creates a privileged class that has access to that information.
Recently I was corresponding with a friend in Tehran, who was telling me about all the internet restrictions in Iran. I asked if the people there accept this with resignation, complain about it, or make excuses for it, and was told that countless excuses are made for these restrictions. We in the west can laugh and be smug about this, except that the situation is little different in western nation-stations. We have seen countless excuses made for the universal warrantless surveillance conducted by the NSA, and shocking vitriol and invective directed at anyone who questions the wisdom of this surveillance regime.
The hysterical response to WikiLeaks disclosures and the Snowden leaks was not about national security, it was about the technocratic elites of the universal surveillance state, who base their status upon privileged access to restricted information, having their status called into question. Security is not an end in itself, but is only a means to an end — the end of social control.
In an op-ed piece on Wikileaks, Google and the NSA: Who’s holding the ‘shit-bag’ now?, Julian Assange recounts what happened in the wake of an attempt by WikiLeaks’ staff to call the State Department directly in order to attempt to speak to Hillary Clinton:
“…WikiLeaks’ ambassador Joseph Farrell, received a call back to discuss the parametres of the call with Hillary, not from the State Department, but from Lisa Shields, the then-girlfriend of Eric Schmidt, who does not formally work for the US State Department. So let’s reprise this situation: The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton. This is illustrative. It shows that at this level of US society, as in other corporate states, it is all musical chairs.”
Assange is right: among the technocratic elite, it’s all musical chairs. But Assange was wrong in implying that things are different outside corporate states. It has always been musical chairs among the elites, whether technocratic or corporate or otherwise. The nature of the society or the civilization may shape the nature of the elites, but it does not change the fact of power elites, which is a civilizational invariant.
It is important to keep in mind that, while the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more venal than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, they are also no less venal. Similarly, the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more rapacious than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but they are also no less rapacious that their predecessors.
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