A tyranny of experts

In outsourcing their authority to international institutions, governments bypass the democratic process and treat their publics as simpletons.

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

This review is republished from the September 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Since it became a buzzword in the 1990s, ‘globalisation’ has acquired all the properties of a magical incantation. People use this mysteriously powerful word to explain all the big issues of our time.

Although it is used promiscuously, the main idea behind the term ‘globalisation’ is that the era of the nation state has come to an end, and national sovereignty no longer counts for very much in our changed world. In the 1990s, globalisation theorists focused on economic arguments. They claimed that powerful global economic factors had rendered the nation state impotent, and governments had become too feeble to manage such globe-sweeping forces. More recently, those who believe that the authority of the nation state has been eroded have focused on international threats: they claim that the big problems facing society – global warming, environmental degradation, super-bugs, terrorism – can only be tackled through international cooperation. Apparently, the traditional state is powerless to deal with these threats. The rise of ‘global risks’ is said to expose the irrelevance of national sovereignty.

Looking back at the debate about sovereignty and globalisation over the past 20 or 30 years, it is astonishing just how swiftly governments and their officials embraced the idea that their institutions were no longer fit for purpose. Today, elected politicians and civil servants frequently say that they are powerless to deal with this or that problem. Many of them seem to accept the need to downsize national sovereignty – that is, their own authority. So, have the forces of globalisation made the nation state irrelevant?

We should note that world market forces have wreaked havoc in the domestic sphere, and caused problems for domestic policymakers, since the early days of capitalism. The unpredictable ebbs and flows of the world economy often threatened to tear apart the integrity of small and weak states. Long before the word ‘globalisation’ was invented, many thinkers and writers recognised that the world economy worked in ways that undermined national policies. So it is unlikely that the contemporary retreat of sovereignty, the argument that the nation state has had its day, is a direct consequence of a quantitative or even qualitative expansion of international economic activity.

Unlike most globalisation theorists, Zaki Laїdi, author of The Great Disruption, does not treat our period as a new era founded on the expansion of the world market. Rather, he notes that ‘globalisation is not just a set of identifiable, measurable processes’ but is a ‘representation of the world’, one which he describes as ‘imaginary’. From this viewpoint, globalisation is a kind of phenomenological tool for making sense of the world. Laїdi argues that ‘globalisation brings out a phenomenology of the present’ – in other words, ‘globalisation’ is more than an economic category; it is also a cultural statement about the times we live in. If globalisation is indeed imagery, a way of imagining the present, then the question must be asked: why has the Western political realm so readily assimilated the theory of globalisation into its arguments and outlooks? Unfortunately, Laїdi’s The Great Disruption does not pursue this potentially rewarding line of investigation; it does not interrogate why Western societies have become overwhelmed by a consciousness of globalisation.

It is not the external impact of international forces, but rather a loss of confidence in the authority and legitimacy of the contemporary state that explains the rise and rise of the globalisation thesis. For some time, the state and public institutions have been suffering a crisis of legitimacy. As far back as the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was clear there was a widespread loss of trust in authoritative institutions in the Western world. Back then, one British observer noted that there was ‘disturbing evidence’ of a decline of ‘public confidence in the police’, which he considered to be a symptom of a ‘crisis of authority’ that affected the ‘most elemental relations of state power and the citizen’ (1).

Lacking confidence in their authority, political elites have started looking for other ways to authorise their actions. For example, they have embraced the authority of science and expertise. With the rise of ‘evidence-based policymaking’, a buzzphrase in Western political life today, traditional electoral authority has been replaced by the authority of the dispassionate expert. Increasingly, national government policies are authorised by external institutions and conventions. Such outsourcing of authority is especially striking in the European Union. Governments that have joined the EU no longer have to take direct responsibility for certain policy initiatives and measures; instead they point out that these policies emanate from a technocratic, supra-national body: the EU. In earlier times, national governments jealously guarded their policymaking processes and prerogatives. Today, they are eager to subordinate themselves to international protocols, and to ‘share’ authority with others. Often, the globalisation thesis provides a political rationale for this outsourcing of authority.

Laїdi is aware of today’s powerful tendency towards outsourcing authority. But he tends to present it in a positive light. Throughout The Great Disruption, he uses terms like ‘redistribution of sovereignty’, ‘pooling of sovereignty’ or ‘sharing sovereignty’. He seems to view the outsourcing of authority as a benign and constructive process. ‘It is the recognition of the principle that authority over a given territory is more effective when it is shared jointly by actors of the same rank, who entrust the responsibility for its exercise to a supranational actor, than when it is confined within a territorialised national space’, he argues. He’s enthusiastic about the ‘process of extension of legitimate authority to actors other than the state’. Yet in the real world, through the very act of being shared, pooled or extended, authority loses its meaning. Authority that is given away is very different to authority that is earned or fought for over a period of time.

Although it is frequently justified in terms of powerful states becoming more humble and open to new ideas, the ‘sharing of authority’ is fundamentally anti-democratic. Outsourcing authority is a top-down procedural project, which breaks policymaking from democratic accountability. By coming together with other elites in international institutions, governments become more accountable to one another than to their own citizens. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for governments to avoid responsibility for certain policies by claiming that the policies were imposed on them by their ‘institutional obligations’. Laїdi describes this process as follows: ‘The sharing of sovereignty is akin, then, to a kind of joint ownership, from which it is always more difficult to extricate oneself from co-tenancy.’ This metaphor of ‘co-ownership’ is, of course, a caricature of true sovereignty. It represents a new form of sovereignty that is divested of any popular pressure or accountability.

Both the critics and supporters of the EU frequently raise concerns about its formal and bureaucratic nature. However, it is no accident that the EU governs in such a slow, clunking fashion. The EU, like other international institutions, was specifically created with a view to bypassing democratic and popular pressure. As Laїdi concedes, ‘Europe is thus, fundamentally, a normative construction that draws, depending on the particular case, on standardisation, harmonisation, voluntary convergence of incentives’. Voluntary for technocrats and policymakers, perhaps, but not for the European masses. As Laїdi notes, in the EU the ‘high degree of normativity leads, at times, to a certain formalism of procedures, which generates a democratic deficit’. Yet for Laїdi, this erosion of democratic accountability is a small price to pay for a form of governance that is based on ‘globally responsible’ rules, and which is reflective of ‘global civil society’.

Today’s celebration of global civil society is motivated by a loss of faith in the public, and by a search for new forms of authority that are insulated from popular pressure. Ultimately, the shift of authority from the national sphere to the global sphere represents the outsourcing of authority to the expert. According to Laїdi, the main source of legitimacy of international civil society – that is, non-governmental organisations and formal international institutions – is its expertise. But there is a big problem with governance through expertise: it renders political choice redundant.

Laїdi fails to note the anti-democratic implications of expert authority. He even hints that such authority is not ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty of the state’. However, international civil society invariably prefers the view of the expert to the view of the democratically elected representative. ‘Expertise is an element of power wielded by the knowledgeable against decision-makers’, says Laїdi. A political drama in which the tension is between the expert and the decision-maker has little room for ordinary people. Instead, the public is expected simply to accept and live with the wisdom of decisions taken by experts and government regulators. Expert consensus, rather than public consensus, is the driving force of new forms of governance.

The main strength of The Great Disruption is that it shows how the outsourcing of authority to the expert and to international bodies leads to today’s peculiarly risk-averse and regulation-obsessed policymaking. Laїdi argues that the new, post-national governing bodies are drawn, almost spontaneously, towards talking up environmentalism as the principal political issue of the twenty-first century. He believes there are three reasons why the issue of the environment is being relentlessly politicised in Europe. ‘First, it is one of the fields that best lends itself to the production of new norms and standards’, he says. Second, it is a field where the ‘political construction of Europe can acquire greater legitimacy’. And third, ‘the environment is the pre-eminent area of shared sovereignty’. Thus, it is in this domain, in the area of the natural environment, that the outsourcing of authority to the scientist, expert and international organisations brings its greatest rewards.

Unfortunately, Laїdi’s valuable insights into political sociology are undermined by his tendency to place faith in enlightened experts. He seems to be imprisoned in the contemporary technocratic imagination, which views the expert as the solution and the people as a problem. As a result, you will find little sympathy for populism or public debate in The Great Disruption. Instead, the argument seems to be that, because our world is so complex, we must place our allegiance in international civil society rather than in the people. Populist movements are dismissed out of hand. Laїdi believes that they arise ‘out of the desire to reduce the complexity of the world to simple issues’. Apparently, the simpletons in these populist movements must not be trusted in our ever-more complex globalised world.

There is another way of making sense of the trends discussed by Laїdi. The voluntary relinquishing of sovereignty by European elites does not show that they are high-minded, forward-looking, enlightened internationalists. Rather, it is an attempt by an insecure oligarchy, which senses that its authority is feeble and falling apart, to disavow full responsibility for its actions. That is why governments today feel so much more at home hanging out in international civil society than they do engaging with their own ‘populist’ public.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire Of The Unknown will be published by Continuum Press in November. He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

This review is republished from the September 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The Great Disruption, by Zaki Laïdi is published by Polity Press (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Samuel Beer (1982) Britain Against Itself, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, p.218

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Topics Politics UK


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