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Thomas S. Harrington

During the last few days and weeks we have been hearing a lot about technocrats, as in “the technocrat Mario Monti has just been named Prime Minister of Italy” or  “the newly-appointed President of the European Central Bank is the technocrat Mario Draghi”.  

Though none of the reporters and pundits I have seen employing it recently have ever stopped to define the term, its implied meaning is quite clear:  a person of demonstrated financial skill who is unburdened by the ideological and political baggage blinding or crippling the incumbent policy makers.

Because the technocrat is effectively “above the fray” and interested in looking at reality solely in terms of “practical solutions”, the story goes, he (they are generally always men) is much better positioned than “mere politicians” to resolve the society’s most pressing social and economic problems.

Insofar as it used in the American context, the term  “fascist” functions largely as a political epithet, an insult we hurl at someone whose high-handed behavior offends us. 

This usage tends to blind us to the fact that the fascist family of ideologies--which flourished in many, many countries, but were most durably on display in Italy (23 years), Spain (36 years) and Portugal (39 years) during the middle half of the 20th century--possesses a shared internal logic, and therefore, a readily identifiable set of common traits.

These characteristics are immediately apparent to anyone who takes the time to study these movements on their own historical terms, as opposed to looking at them, as important and influential sectors of our press and entertainment industries would have us to do, as manifestations of a “pure evil” that one should not try to understand but, instead, merely condemn and shun.

Perhaps the most fundamental of these common fascistic tropes is the belief that “parliamentary democracy” is not only not (as its Enlightenment inventors claimed) an effective vehicle for the transmission of the popular will, but also, and even more essentially, a cesspool of empty words and narrow factional interests. 

In the face of this reality, the nation must--it is said-- find a man (or a small group of men) who can, through a combination of clairvoyance and the rare ability to float above “partisan interests”, lead the country back to unity, prosperity and international glory.

It is thus not surprising that the term “technocrat” first came into wide public usage during the Franco dictatorship.

As the 1950s drew to a close, the Spanish economy had still not recovered from the Civil War started by the Generalísimo and a small group of his army comrades in 1936.  Also foundering was the unity of purpose forged among the various ideological “families” of the regime during the Civil War (1936-39) and the difficult decade and a half that followed its conclusion.

In other words, the dictator needed to massively overhaul his country’s economy. But he needed to do so in a way that would not offend or alarm the many elements of his governing claque that were hostile to the idea of modern industrial policy. To do otherwise would alter the sometimes  fragile balance of his regime.

So he placed the economic policies of the regime under the control of a team of young college graduates led by Laureano López Rodó.  These whiz kids quickly came to be known as los tecnócratas.   And over the next decade   they would usher in a spectacular wave of growth in the Spanish economy by opening the country--whose regime had long prided itself on not being engaged with, or indebted to, the outside world--to massive foreign investment.

The point here is not to debate the pros and cons of this economic strategy. Rather, the idea is to show that the technocrats, presented by both the regime and the country’s many new investments partners as a group of apolitical tinkerers interested only in pragmatic problem solving, were nothing of the sort.

On the personal level almost all were members of the ultra-right-wing Catholic lay organization known as Opus Dei. But more importantly, on the policy level, they were implementers of a massive ideological shift in the country’s economic profile.

Who are the technocrats now being presented to us as the bearers of  “sensible” supra-political solutions to Italy’s and to Europe’s massive problems?

Mario Monti, the newly appointed prime minister of Italy, has served on the boards of Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola and is the European chairman of the Trilateral Commission. He is also a member of the Bilderberg Group, an even more exclusive and more private version of the Davos-based World Economic Forum.

The newly appointed president of the European Central Bank, Draghi, is a former Vice-Chairman and Managing director of Goldman Sachs and is on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the Brookings Institution. He has also been a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

These men are, and have been, many things. But one thing that they have never been is apolitical or above the ideological fray. 

No, they are core participants in a deeply ideological project which holds, among many other things, that the massive accumulation of capital and political power in very few hands is the natural order of things in the world.

People running authoritarian regimes have always been keenly aware of the need to hide or blur their true ideological goals and the real dimensions of their lust for power.  In the case of the mid-twentieth century fascisms, this was done by presenting the dictator as the ultimate post-partisan patriot (sound familiar?).

In more recent years, as discussions of governance have taken on a more economical turn (itself the sign of a silent and generally under-analyzed ideological transformation), they have sought to clothe their deeply ideological project in the mantle of   a non-ideological  “common sense”.

But of course, there is no place in our public discourse that is free of ideological contamination. We are all ideological beings, thinking and acting on the basis of ideological suppositions and hunches. Indeed, the oligarchs remind us of this every time we dare to raise our heads and criticize their carefully-designed program of economic subjugation.

Isn’t it time we begin showing them in clear and direct language that we can give as well as we can take?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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