A Treatise on the Possibility of a Democratic Technocracy and its relation to Populism

di Stefan Vucic - 13 Luglio 2019

  from Stockholm, Sweden

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00049



As Sverker Gustavsson, a prominent researcher in political science in Sweden, noted – while liberal democracy loses its grip, it paves the road for populism but also for technocracy (Gustavsson and Hulth, 2017). In an analysis published in Foreign Policy, Sheri Berman argued that the rise of populism was the reaction to technocratic aspirations within democratic institutions (Berman, 2017). Both technocracy and populism may make their appearances in a democratic system as legit phaenomena. Nevertheless, their excessive presence alludes to the circumstances in which such a system is being fundamentally disputed.

This article questions self-sustainability of a democratic system and examines the possibility of a system based on a ’tribrid’ construction of technocracy, populism and democracy. Another point which it considers is whether it is able to provide a basis for a meritocracy. It also aims to argue why in certain occasions the use of placebos, by means of populistic discourses but still by following the protocols of democracy, may appear as a legitimate way of handling political affairs. On the other hand, it will consider and suggest the reasons which may question both the legitimacy and applicability of such an idea.


Plato’s main argument against democracy was that the issues which concern state matters cannot be decided by those who are not competent. Fundamentally, it corresponds to the main premise of technocrats which is that politics is too important to be left to people and non-expert politicians. Populism at the first glance appears to represent an opposition to such aspirations. In that context it postures itself as a channel which makes it possible to hear people’s concerns and to let them actualise their solutions. In doing so it even appears to advocate more of direct democracy.

The use of a target-shifting token ‘appears’ in this case is intentional. Populism seems to offer simple solutions to complex problems. But how realistic is that they may be actualised? Discourses which express populist ideas act on the basis of placebo effect. The very idea that the problem has been identified and recognised leaves an acknowledging impact among the voters and acts as a remedy (Monvoisin and Pinsault, 2019). Populist discourses however act as a web mobilising people’s energy for providing legitimacy and justification for the necessity of enforcing certain policies. On the one hand, the placebo effect of such policies is that they provide the impression of more security. On the other, the actual outcome is that they limit people’s influence by homogenising instruments of power and scrutinising the institutions of democracy.


What happens when people are set into a perpetual motion of limiting their own power? In the long run it establishes the so called ‘plebiscite caesarism’. In Max Weber’s terms it manifests through “plebiscitary elections, disdain for parliament, relying on the legitimacy of the monarchy for cover, preference for governing with the help of emergency legislation, nontoleration of any autonomous power within the government, failure to attract or suffer independent political minds” (Casper, 2007, p. 4). The main argument here is that populism is a mechanism which mobilises the majority, by all democratic means, in restricting the authority of that majority. This invokes Plato’s paradox of freedom (cf. Popper’s paradox of tolerance) in which he discloses the issue of the rule of majority. He argues that, due to the incompetency of the majority for political affairs, it is indeed their ‘free will’ which legitimises rulers with autocratic aspirations (discussed in Popper, 2011, p. 117).

Karl Popper in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ acknowledges the disadvantages of majority rule, but he neither approves of Plato’s idea of the ‘philosopher king’. He argues that the idea of the rule of the wise, i.e. of the competent, is fundamentally totalitarian in its character as well. Once established, it favours the ‘status quo’ structure which implies the assumption of ‘unchecked sovereignty’. As such, it denies egalitarianism and is veiled by the illusion of freedom. Afterall, it anew stimulates the reactions which create favourable conditions for populism. Therefore, Popper shifts Plato’s question “Who should rule?” to “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?” and in order to eliminate the assumption of ‘unchecked sovereignty’ (Popper, 2011, p. 115).


There are many concepts of an ideal society which remain utopian. What we aim to identify in this discussion is the best alternative to it and which is realistic in terms of its applicability and sustainability. At this point we can acknowledge the deficiencies of the social structures and those of human nature (cf. Hobbes on human nature in the Leviathan). Accordingly, we might not be in position to assert that the propositions offered here would be completely unequivocal when confronted with idealistic ethical criteria. However, their cause is noble – paving the path towards a better and more competent political system. The concept is nothing new and some of its principles have been utilised in various contexts and forms. It is nothing new because it is based on a triangular construction of already existing systems – populism, technocracy and democracy. What may be considered as new and contributing in this discussion is the perspective on its employment and its justification.

What secures the progress of a society and the development of its humanistic aspects, according to Popper, is its ‘openness’ (see Popper’s concept of ‘the open society’). Hence, one of major aims of our newly constructed system is to secure that condition. It also implies that the system needs to be fundamentally democratic. An issue is therefore how to secure the sustainability of essential democratic principles which provide the openness (e.g. public debate et al.). The controlling component of such a system is the one consisting of the wise, i.e. the competent in political affairs and able to recognise the needs of the society expressed through the mentioned democratic form.


The mission of this technocratic body is not to rule under the veil of democracy, but rather to steer the rule of people in a progressive and sustainable direction. It is foremost a mentoring body. Unlike some counselling agency, it indeed does have power as it oversees people and their power. The main challenge is how to provide sustainability and prevent corruption of the technocratic body, or even establishing an aristocracy. Could meritocracy be set into a perpetual motion?

Considering that the technocratic body has for its mission establishing a meritocratic system, it is reasonable to assume that it is also self-developing in that manner. Relying solely on the individuals of which it consists is actually very unreliable (here, we take into consideration Hobbes’ remark on human nature). It follows that it is the design of that body itself which will serve as the most reliable guarantor of its incorruptible character. What is at issue in this instance is the matter of power acquisition. Namely, the body itself necessarily requires a considerable capacity of power in order to serve its function. However, the individuals of which it consists ought to be prevented from acquiring power in any form.


Justification for the use of populistic discourses by the technocratic body may be searched in the very effect of it. A comparable phaenomenon is discussed in the book II of Plato’s Republic. He claimed that ‘verbal falsehood’ is not real falsehood for the reason that by saying something what is untrue in words can lead to virtuous acts. Despite that a discourse may consist of verbal falsehoods, it still may lead to favourable effects both to the state and its citizens. The reason for the necessity of their use may be found in the competency gap between technocratic and democratic bodies which thence lead to miscommunication. The technocratic body is supposed to identify the needs of people and thence appropriately respond to it. Some appropriate solutions (here generally being spoken of policies) may however not resonate with the democratic body for various structural and sentimental reasons.

Hence, what is being suggested is the use of populist discourses that will act as placebos for the people. In other words, their role is to provide a pleasing, or satisfactory, effect while justifying the necessary decisions. They should therefore be seized and kept under control of the body which exercises power on meritocratic principles. Thus, by monopolising them, it would be also prevented that they are left at disposal to the groups with autocratic aspirations. This at the same time suggests that discourses would be the main means of power which technocratic body has at its disposal. Such a system is based on Michel Foucault’s theory of the power/knowledge relation in which the state of affairs is in continual negotiation among the governing subjects. It follows that the source of power is found in constantly emerging forms of accepted knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’ (Foucault, 1980, pp. 112-113).


One may rightly object that such a system would not be democratic. It would indeed not present a liberal democracy but rather a mentored one. The mission of such a system would be not anti-democratic but rather one reinforcing civil society and motivating meritocracy and the awareness for common good. The ‘demos’ remains as a policy initiator and legitimacy provider body. In return, it is being supported by the technocratic body in terms of sustaining democratic principles. It is also meant to establish a more direct communication channel among the governing subjects. Such a structure would most certainly affect the role of political parties, foremost regarding power acquisition. They would nonetheless still have the central role in terms of identifying and expressing the current issues of a society.

The said technocratic body may in its basis remind of some already known examples in history. One of them is the ‘Council of elders’ in ancient Sparta, also known as ‘Gerousia’. It discussed legislative proposals and had the power to prevent them despite their approval in the assembly. In terms of jurisdiction, it may allude to the Roman Senate and corresponding bodies in modern constitutions following that tradition (e.g. upper house of the parliament et al.). Another comparable example from the actual constitutional systems may be found in the European Council. In a relatively technocratic manner, it determines priorities and political direction of the EU. Here we argue for a comparable, but more proactive approach of such a body and which is engaged in a more direct dialogue with citizens. Essential difference is found in its internal design based on meritocratic criteria and the principal position in the hierarchy of governmental bodies.


This discussion should by no means be considered as a proposal to constitutional amendment. It appears to be presented in a prescriptive manner. Its aim is however to enable a certain perspective and motivate further debate that could contribute to a ‘just’ state and ‘happiness’ of its subjects. Indeed, discussions of this sort have been the matter of philosophy, and later of social sciences, since antiquity. In addition to such a general motive, this article has been motivated the current context and developments both on internal and international political level. It alludes that virtues such as prudence and responsibility are becoming increasingly crucial both in the interior and international affairs.

As such, the summed-up mission of the article is found in motivating further questioning and rethinking of the current political structures and tendencies within them. In that respect, this debate can be expanded on the basis of following lines: 1) How to incite the transition from the rule of masses to the rule of ‘demos’ based on meritocratic principles? 2) What are the preconditions for creating a sustainable environment in which people would be in a more competent shape to debate on political affairs? 3) What structure of a political system would be legitimately competent to prioritise the decisions made with higher consequential awareness and eliminate those based on impressions?




Stefan Vucic is the author of this article. He is currently based in Stockholm, Sweden, and is reading politics and International Relations.


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