#38 | April 23 - May 6, 1998  smlogo.gif


In This Issue
Feature Story
Press Review
Death Porn
Kino Korner
Moscow Babylon



By Abram Kalashnikov

Refresh my memory here...I don't remember when it was, but someone was telling me not long ago about this theory he had, that the workers ought to control the means of production, that capitalism and imperialism would be succeeded by socialism, and that the state would eventually wither away. Weird little theory, and it came with an even weirder twist; it was totally apolitical. The guy who was telling me about it insisted it was all based on science, not politics. It was proven fact, a historical inevitability, not hypothesis. Not opinion.

Wait-now it comes back to me. That was Marx! And wait, it turned out that he was...full of shit! His little "apolitical" theory gave the world enough politics this century to last humanity until the next ice age. And what politics!

Funny how all that slipped my mind. Maybe it's because I've been reading the news too much lately. That's because lately, that whole "apolitical" thing is making a comeback, in the guise of the word "technocrat"-and no one is calling the whole phenomenon ridiculous. They're taking it seriously.

Few events in recent Russian history have demonstrated the capacity of the Western press to spread insidious doublespeak better than the rise to power of Sergei Kiriyenko. No sooner had this balding little patsy been thrust into the Prime Minister post by Boris Yeltsin than every hack in town was calling him a "technocrat", or a "young technocrat". It was a great label, and it seemed to fit the nerdly-looking Kiriyenko well. You could somehow see him tucked away behind a computer screen, technocratting away. There was only one problem: no one knew what the hell the word meant.

There was confusion everywhere. Sometimes, as with the Moscow Times, "technocrat" seemed to mean the absence of resolve in the battle against communists...

"This means also sharing some power with the communists and nationalists in a government headed by the lackluster technocrat Sergei Kiriyenko or someone else. Reforms, including military reform, will inevitably stagnate. But stagnation is nothing new in Russia."

...while at other times, as in Reuters news releases, "technocrat" seemed to mean just the opposite, i.e. enthusiasm for anti-communist policies:
"At 35, Kiriyenko's political experience is limited to four months as fuel and energy minister and about eight months as a deputy minister. He has won a reputation as an effective technocrat who is fully behind market reforms."

The AP, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Moscow Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, and a host of Russian papers all repeatedly referred to Kiriyenko as a "technocrat" in the past month. In doing so, some were playing follow the leader. Boris Yeltsin himself referred to Kiriyenko as a "technocrat" in an address to the nation:
"Kiriyenko is what they call a technocrat, an expert in management. He is a man who is not linked today with any (political) parties or movements. At the same time he is capable of conducting dialogue with anyone, he's ready to listen to the opinions of different sides."

The word "technocrat" isn't new, although its sudden resurgence in news coverage of Russia has been marked by a fresh approach to the word in general. Webster's defines "technocracy" as "a government by scientists and engineers," but for the most part, the media has tended to use "technocrat" to describe anyone who is said to be more problem-solver than ideologue. Whether or not the word is used in a positive way has tended, over the course of this century, to depend a lot on how society feels about ideology or politics in general. In the ideological fervor of the McCarthy era, for instance, it was not uncommon for major American newspapers to associate "technocracy" with communism. The word somehow fit the image of the unfeeling, robotic Soviet infiltrator; the Hearst newspapers in the fifties frequently referred to "bloodless technocrat communists" in their coverage.

But when a few years passed and Americans grew tired of rah-rah politics and jingoistic speeches, politicians suddenly started lining up to define themselves not as politicians, but technocrats. Mike Dukakis, for instance, used the term to explain away his lack of personality. It didn't work; Dukakis wasn't a good enough politician, it turned out, to trick voters into believing he wasn't one.

While the manipulation of the "t" word might have horrified Webster, there was one group in the United States which distinguished itself throughout the 20th century by its entymological correctness. In July, 1918, a group of self-serious veterans of Federal government service gathered at Waverly place in Manhattan to form what subsequently became known as "The Technocracy." These were guys who'd read their dictionaries and decided to agitate, appropriately enough, for the actual establishment of a government of scientists and engineers.

Technocracy's leader, an engineer named Howard Scott, was called the "Chief Engineer" of the group, while his deputies held titles like "architect" and "forester". Together, these middle-class scientists worked steadily over the years to propagate themselves as the vanguard of a new "non-political" movement, which would help lift society out of the muck of the competing ideologies of capitalism and communism.

All of which sounded like a good idea. The only problem was, the Technocrats were lunatics. Their platform was like a hellish mixture of Ayn Rand and discarded Star Trek scripts, full of adolescent posturing about their supra-rational, masculine approach to social problems, and dilettante plans for rescuing humanity through technology.

Among other things, they advocated restricting travel on the American continent to waterways (because ground travel required too much use of non-replaceable fuels) and prohibiting the use of chromium metal for decorative purposes in modern architecture. Technocrat literature was littered with creepy Heaven's Gate-style catchwords, like "Price System" (describing capitalist economics), "Area" (rather than "state" or political territory), and "kinetic force".

Instead of talking about per capita consumption, they talked about how much "non-renewable kinetic energy" people expended in their lifetimes. In short, these were people who would have been Dungeons and Dragons freaks, if the Middle Ages had celebrated air conditioning and freeze-drying. But the real reason Technocracy never got off the ground as a major force in America (although a few Technocrats served in FDR's cabinet) wasn't that its leaders were demented retards. The real problem with Technocracy was that its central premise was totally ridiculous. It claimed simultanously to be above politics and opinion, while having an opinion about everything.

One Technocratic writer in the fifties even advocated a program of full conscription during the Korean War as a "patriotic solution" to the conflict. Technocrats also tended to favor the abolition of free enterprise and privatization.

You've got to be pretty stupid to call for the abolition of free enterprise in the United States of America, of all places, and expect people to treat you as a harmless "non-politician." But the Technocrats did. They claimed that all social problems had pre-existing nonideological solutions, much the way Michaelangelo believed the perfect statue already existed inside the uncut stone. In this sense, they differed from "ordinary" politicians in exactly one sense: they didn't admit the possibility, even in theory, that they could be wrong about anything.

What does all of this have to do with Kiriyenko? A lot. Because when Western reporters call the new Premier a technocrat, they're laying the same specious garbage on their readers that the actual Technocrats tried to lay on the world. There is no such thing as a non-political politician. Look it up in any dictionary: politics is the study of government. The head of a government is always necessarily, by his nature, a politician. Even if he says he isn't one. Especially if he says he isn't one.

Even more than its predecessor, "reformer", "technocrat" is an extremely dangerous word. It anesthesizes people, makes them believe that government is just a matter of hard work and elbow grease, and not the contest of interests that it is. Once people swallow the concept of the "technocrat", it's a short step to convincing them that society is just a big jumbo jet that needs one pilot in total control. After all, you don't fly a plane with opinions. You just solve problems along the way.

When reporters try to tell you that someone is a technocrat, what they're really trying to do is tell you the difference between Right and Wrong. Take the Reuters quote above. By lumping together the words "technocrat" and "supportive of market reforms", they're telling you that market reform is the one and only solution to Russia's problems, the only one a "technocrat" would choose. Like it's not an opinion, but scientific fact.

Marx tried the same thing. It was bullshit then, and it's bullshit now. No matter whose byline you see it under.

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