When discussing post-socialist politics in Eastern Europe the Weberian framework of Politics as a Vocation is one of the most (if not THE most) thrown around description (or apparent explanation of backwardness) of a perceived “us” vs. “them” cleavage: “the people” constantly electing Machiavellian politicians who don’t care about their constituencies, hence an obvious lack of accountability and legitimacy. Politicians are power-hungry manipulators, eager to drain public resources without the slightest care. Yet, out of the blue, a shining white-knight takes the scene: The Technocrat! (also known through the media as “the famous economist” “the renowned lawyer” and so on).
Rather than a meager party-member scrambling out and about for votes, the technocrat is rhetorically constructed as the perfect beacon of hope: the consumate professional, politically unbiased, far-sighted and visionary, interested in “the greater good” etc. When something seems too good to be true, it generally shouts for a more in-depth look. In this brief overview I will attempt to look at some of the aspects behind the shiny poster of The Technocrat in post-90s Eastern Europe. To be fair, I am perfectly aware that not each and every technocrat falls into this pattern! It is not my aim to attribute blame nor find “a new scapegoat” for transition problems. What I am interested in here is the rhetorical construction: creating a legitimizing image for otherwise hard-to-digest decisions having to do most of the time with retrenchment of the welfare-state, budget cuts of all type, mass lay-offs and so on.
Setting the stage: socio-economic context
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, new democratic elites were faced with daunting challenges of widespread poverty and inefficient economies, under the umbrella of an overgrown (in terms of scope) welfare-state. State-dependency fostered in the forced version of pay-as-you-go universal-employment-universal coverage communist welfare model was complemented by a high degree of unionization, yet contrasted sharply with professional rigidity in a very un-competitive economy. Market-liberalization reforms meant a looming specter of unemployment with unclear perspectives of re-entry into the workforce. While in the short term a strategic use of welfare-policies kept social unrest under control (Inglot:2008, Vanhuysse:2004), the long-term fiscal effects were devastating: a nearly bankrupt state budget. What needs to be kept mind, in conjunction with the aforementioned dependency-effect, is that attachment to the welfare-state was high: after decades of state-controlled economy, the welfare-state was not only a safety net understood for its economic underpinnings , but it had grown to be regarded as somewhat of a life-long legitimate claim of every citizen towards the state (A. Sajo notes the crucial aspect that politicians were aware of this evolution and were hence forced to maintain strong constitutional guarantees for social insurance schemes; Sajo:1999). It is precisely these long-term effects, coupled with a general trend favorizing a more neo-liberal model of social insurance, as well as continued economic shortage and protracted growth that are some of the key features of the context we are interested in.
What is to be done? More important, who can do it without political suicide?
Reality was slowly creeping up by the late 90s early 2000s: the short term goal of ensuring social cohesion had been done at the expense of long-term risks. Retrenchment of lavish benefits stood at a crossroads between pure shortage and international pressures: IMF- and World Bank-endorsed programmes of neoliberalization as guarantees for vital loans. It takes no stretch of the imagination though to see the corollary: budget cuts and lay-offs. It also does not take much to realize how these measures could shatter the electoral base of even the most popular politicians. It as this moment that the myth of the Technocrat starts taking the stage: as people coming from outside politics (generally from think thanks, NGOs and so on), technocrats were believed to have better “vision” and a non-partisan approach to politics and reform. As people with high-prestige education (oftentimes in “the West” and having previous experience with international organisms such as IMF and World Bank), technocrats could divert attention and bring new sources of legitimacy: it is not a Machiavellian politician that does not want the “good of the people”, but it is an “expert” that dictates the new direction. The idea is simple and powerful: the laymen might not feel the subtitles of economics or international politics, the politician might be himself a bit underprepared sometimes, but the Technocrat has all the relevant tools for these endeavours. And perhaps more important, if (when?) this project fails then loss of political capital is not as dramatic.
If the politician indeed is perceived as only living off politics, then the Technocrat’s image is much better: as an individual with a strong professional career he appears not to have as direct a stake in politics. The added value of this rhetorical-political construction is that the politician who endorses technocrats can put himself in better light: a good organizer with a strong team, a good manager distributing tasks, a good representative concerned for the people. What is less clear at first to the public is the political pathway of recruiting the Technocrat which more often than not involves a great degree of clientelism and patronage. Welfare-retrenchment is now framed not only as “an outside requirement alien to the peoples’ needs”, but as the logical step in a strategy devised by an apparently unbiased arbiter of politics.
To be fair, I am forcing an overgeneralization in order to better highlight a construction: not all technocrats were neo-liberals, nor were they espousing uniform views. What was uniform, however, was the way in which mainstream politicians and the media converged in creating this image of the unbiased expert who can “take the heat” and make the unpopular decision for “the greater welfare of the nation”, due an amorphously defined “vision” (for an intriguing theoretical framework of political version see Jowitt:1993). Obviously, an in-depth study is needed to here to gauge the levels of success of this strategy: coupling electoral results to see incumbency levels with media studies and surveys on popular perceptions. It is however safe to draw to at least a partial conclusion: beyond the obvious added value of expertise that technocrats undoubtedly bring to the table, there seems to have been an extensive rhetorical construction made around them. An intriguing side-puzzle for a further article will be the rhetorical construction of the “intellectual-politician” vs. the “manager-politician”, which seems to share some common features with the myth of the Technocrat.
Picture soruce: 21St Century Wire