Some thoughts on ‘technocracy’ and the public sphere in Iraq and Europe


Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi is currently locked in a political struggle over reform of Iraq’s political system. To cut a long story short, he is looking to reduce the number of cabinet positions, merge certain ministries, and bring in a number of ‘technocrats’ from academic and technical fields into ministerial roles. Al-Abadi’s reforms come in response to concerted pressure from protesters across Iraq (or at least those areas not under ISIS control), backed by calls from the Shi’i marja’iya demanding both improvements in service delivery, an end to corruption, and, in some cases, a fundamental change in Iraq’s political system i.e. an end to ‘sectarian quotas’. Sinan Antoon, the Iraqi scholar and public intellectual has written sceptically of al-Abadi’s initiative: ‘The “technocrat” is a term that has been promoted and has been circulating recently in Iraqi political discourse and on the tongues of those in the ruling political class, as if it were a secret magical word that will open wide the doors to reform and will lead to an exit from the disastrous situation in which the country finds itself.’[1]


This notion of technocracy as a solution to Iraq’s political problems throws up some interesting considerations and even points of comparison with recent European experience where the rise of technocracy has been prompted by the governance failures of a number of democratic governments (at least in the eyes of international financial markets and institutions e.g. the EU, IMF etc.) Here I will oppose technocracy to the concept of the public sphere, defined as a domain of rational discourse through which citizens – coming together as a public – hold political authority accountable to a particular standard of political legitimacy and thus rationalise both competing social interests and the distribution of resources and power.


Where technocracy is deemed a viable political solution, it follows that the public sphere is failing to fulfil this rationalising function. Either a public sphere with such characteristics does not exist, or it no longer has the institutional linkages through which the public can be brought to bear as a deliberative force in politics. Technocracy is then considered an alternative route to the rationalisation of political authority and the distribution of resources. It seeks to substitute the rationalising function of a public sphere with the rationalising function of alternative and more narrowly defined social fields e.g. the academic, business, scientific, or technical-legal fields. The rationality and impartiality of these fields belies the reality of their social embeddedness. Bringing them into the centre of power by placing them in command of the state subjects their claim to universal rationalism to even greater strain. Moreover, the mode of rationality which characterises these fields is distinct from that of the public sphere. The rationalism which technocracy seeks to effect is a socially detached rationalism. It is not rationalism as a form of social praxis, it does not entail the transcendence or reconciliation of competing social interests, but, rather, deferring adjudication between these interests up to a higher authority thought capable of judgement based on a universal, abstract rationalism.


Thus, substituting a public sphere with technocratic fields poses a more critical problem than the imperfection of the latter’s claims to the exercise of rationality in politics. Technocratic fields simply cannot substitute for the public sphere’s capacity to generate political legitimacy. This relates to the different modes of rationality embodied by these different fields. The public sphere as a social field is characterised by a mode of rationality that combines elements of instrumental-strategic action with communicative practice through which individuals confirm each other’s subjectivity as a reciprocal equality in an ongoing discursive search for mutual understanding. In other words, the public sphere functions to both rationalise political authority and the distribution of power, and to underpin that material state of affairs with a normative validity. By contrast, technocratic fields embody a thin mode of rationality, i.e. they can rationalise the distribution of power and resources but they cannot sustain a claim to political legitimacy rooted in a communicative practice through which the individual transcends an instrumental and extractive relationship with the state. This latter approach is liable to foster the institutionalisation of competing social interests into blocks which then engage with the state in a process of transactional bargaining. This in turn excludes the public as a participatory force in politics and fosters social fragmentation as the institutional space through which competing social interests search for mutual understanding is squeezed and rendered politically ineffective.


In Iraq, it is clear that the crisis of political legitimacy affecting the state has both institutional (failure to provide services, security, corruption etc.) and more communicative dimensions (the continued struggle to define a shared understanding as to the rules of the game through which politics is conducted.) Bringing technocrats into the government may help resolve the institutional dimensions (although this remains rather dubious), but it can do nothing to resolve the communicative aspects of Iraq’s legitimacy crisis. In fact, it is likely to further institutionalise Iraqi politics as an elite activity of factional bargaining which excludes Iraqis from meaningful political participation, impedes the development an Iraqi public sphere, and exacerbates political and social fragmentation by ossifying competing social interests in a process of institutionalisation.


In Europe public spheres have developed alongside the emergence of nation-state democracies. However, the creation of trans-national political and financial institutions, most notably the EU, has led to a situation where effective political authority no longer corresponds to extant public spheres which are, by and large, still coterminous with the nation-state as a political unit. There is, therefore, no means by which these transnational institutions can sustain a political legitimacy derived from being enmeshed in a discursive engagement with a corresponding public. Consequently, these institutions are characterised by elite-bargaining in which European publics play a merely performative, as opposed to participatory, role. They also perform this role as national publics, there is no effective “European public discourse.”


Compared to Iraq the EU’s crisis in legitimacy is communicative before it is strategic-instrumental. The referendum debate in the UK illustrates this point succinctly. The Remain camp emphasises instrumental-strategic concerns (asking citizens to reflect on the economic risks to their material states of affairs). The Leave camp emphasises questions of legitimacy and the accountability of political authority. Where the Remain camp does emphasise more normative concerns, e.g. what could be considered ethical questions such as human rights and environmentalism, the focus is on the need for elite, top-down institutions which can realise these political ends, not on how a political system which embodies an emancipatory politics – i.e. one in which political authority is accountable to a public sphere – ought to be the foundation upon which a progressive politics can achieve progressive ends through legitimate means.

[1] Sinan Antoon, عن «النهبوقراطيّة» في العراق available at: my translation.


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