Technocrats behind the Curtain

Technocrats behind the Curtain

According to legend, after the murder of the despotic emperor Caligula, the assassins discovered Claudius hiding behind a curtain. To his great surprise, instead of being stabbed to death, Claudius was proclaimed as the new Emperor of Rome. Claudius was an astute scholar of Roman history, but he had never in his life sought power or even regarded as a political force and seems to be to reasoning for his reward. But he hardly had the confidence of the public; possibly because he stammered in his speech and stumbled into his political office. Not only did Claudius suddenly become the most powerful man in Italy without even trying, he also found himself in control of an empire stretching from France to Egypt. But that was a long time ago.   

When Mario Monti came to power in November of 2011, a British newspaper ran a slightly mean headline, introducing him as “The Dull Monti.” After the colourful years of Berlusconi, Italy found itself in an economic quagmire and instead of holding an election to replace the flamboyant Prime Minister, the President simply appointed a replacement. It was at that moment that Monti, a senior advisor to Goldman Sachs and a former EU Commissioner, was invited to lead a technocratic government. His mission was to enact the reforms necessary to rescue a fragile economy that had been freshly decimated by the Eurozone crisis. Democracy was, in effect, put on hold in order to tidy up the mess. But is he proud of his technocratic identity?

“Of course, yes,” says the former Prime Minister. “I’ve been an academic for most of my life,” he explains “certainly engaged in policy advising on occasions and in policy making on other occasions. Ten years in the European Commission as I did probably does connotate you as a technocrat.”

But is there a darker side to technocracy? Nobody voted for Monti, and his reforms involved highly controversial cuts in government spending and rise in the age of retirement. What if hailing “Super Mario” as a technocratic saviour, as the Financial Times did  during his time in office, was just another way of telling Europeans that there was only ever one answer to the crisis?

When George Papandreou visited the EUI in November 2014, he used his speech at a meeting of the Club de Madrid to warn against an unquestioning acceptance of technocratic leaders. After his talk, the former Prime Minister of Greece told me that “the idea of technocracy has been used because complicated systems need specialists. But if they’re so complicated then they’re not necessarily accountable to our democracies.”

He went on to say that “There are moral assumptions behind different theories. It’s much better to bring that out into the open then to pretend that there is one science that will decide on all in these areas.” Papandreou was, in effect, saying that it’s almost impossible for any one person to be objective enough to be an honest technocrat on behalf of the public. The Greek statesman was arguing that politics, far from being an exact and pragmatic science, can never escape the prism of ideology.

Economists still disagree as to whether austerity stabilised or exacerbated the Eurozone crisis. It’s impossible to know if Monti’s technocratic government saved Italy from its very own Greek tragedy or if it merely exasperated the country’s dire stagnation. According to Eurostat, the Italian unemployment rate is now 13%, and the youth unemployment rate is 43%. Despite this, when young Italians are asked about Monti they tend to shrug and offer their tacit approval, perhaps because he never publically asked them for the job. He didn’t kiss babies and make grand promises; he was just a man standing behind a curtain, or at least that’s what he would like us to believe.

“I would make a distinction” Monti remarks, “between technocrats who, in one way or another, seize power because they want power, because they want to profit from the weakness of the political system. In countries hit by the financial crisis in recent years, the opposite has been the case.”

Monti describes the political landscape that shuffled him into office as one of political reluctance. “My intention was to form a cabinet half way composed of other experts but also of political personalities” explained Monti. “So I turned to three parties that had signed up to support the national effort with a broad majority, but actually each of them preferred not to have people of their own political personnel as ministers in my government. So that was, if you want, a technocracy by default because politicians did not want to step in.”

Claudius had been a useful figure to Caligula’s enemies; he had been in the right place at the right time. What surprised many Romans about the uninspiring Claudius was that he actually turned out to be a good emperor. He succeeded where Julius Cesar had failed by conquering a hostile island in the North Sea, which we now know as Britain. He also diminished Caligula’s culture of vindictive state-sponsored brutality. And yet, many might have hoped that we had moved on from the days of leadership decisions being made in dark rooms by desperate men.