Minimum Feasible Participation: The Politics of ‘Rationality’

By Jamie Stern-Weiner:

In early twentieth century America many thinkers perceived and reacted to a shift towards judgement by experts, an apparent realisation of an influential tradition in political thought that has conceived of political judgement as a technical skill. Some, like Walter Lippmann, championed “dependence on those who know” as a necessary adaptation to the complexity of modernity. In the “epoch of technology” who better to judge than technicians? Others were fearful that increases in the authority of technical experts came at the expense of democratic accountability. But fears, and enthusiasms, about “the expert… replacing the politician” were exaggerated. Social scientists at this time tended to see themselves as “service intellectuals” – “on tap, not on top” – and lacked the power to usurp traditional political and business elites.

But if experts did not seize decisionmaking control from traditional elites, ‘expertise’ and ‘rationality’ did become important justifications for innovations in the process of political decisionmaking the effect of which was to further marginalise the public. Experts did not ultimately hold power, but the “citadel of expertise” often functioned to advance the interests of and provide cover for those who did. Claiming specialist knowledge to add authority to interested judgement was not a new tactic. But following WWII, there arose in America something quite different: an attempt to change the structures of decisionmaking itself – the processes by which political judgement was formed – along ‘rational’ lines. This conceptualized political judgement not as a product of democratic deliberation, the exercise of human reason, or gut intuition, but as a “machine product”.


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