Jul 21, 2011

The technocrat personality

There's been an interesting debate going back and forth between Yglesias, Henry over at CT and a few others about neoliberalism and the technocratic school on American left.  It's a bit strained at times, but I think still illuminating.  Here Henry says the technocrats lack a theory of politics:
Hence, it’s a problem if neo-liberalism doesn’t have a theory of politics. This not only means that it can’t think about long-term change in any coherent or useful way; it means that neo-liberals have difficulty thinking about the interactions between short-term policy proposals that they like and the political conditions that might make these and other proposals achievable, and sustainable after they have been brought through.
One might reply that the technocrats (like Yglesias, and especially Ezra Klein) have begun writing more about unions recently—as I understand it on the strict economics even someone like Krugman would say the case for unions is weak, but on the politics it's cut and dried.  A large interest group solidly on the side of the middle class is something desperately needed in America.

Yglesias' response is telling:
This is one reason why I put a fair amount of emphasis on disparaging the folk theory of political change which holds something like “change happens because the president shows ‘leadership’ and delivers awesome speeches.” Belief in that theory of change tends, I think, to distract people from the reality that it really takes massive, difficult-to-achieve feats of collective action. How exactly one goes about achieving those feats is somewhat mysterious (I’m partial to Theda Skocpol’s ideas), but if you’re frustrated with the pace of change this is what you need to be working on.
It's a classic technocratic response.  How do we achieve change?  Well, someone wrote a theoretical book it you can check out.  And I'm not knocking that!  Now I want to read that book, and if I weren't out of the country there's a good chance I would have ordered it.

From a closer standpoint, I think this has a lot to do with personality.  I write about bloodless technocrat things in a bloodless technocrat style because, well, I am a bloodless technocrat to a large extent.  Quite frankly, I suck at the thankless task of political organizing—and I speak from experience.  A couple examples: at Reed I founded a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and in 2008 I volunteered for Obama, and I was basically a miserable failure at both of those things.  I've been down that road, and for me it ends in disillusionment and failure.

Some time ago I took a personality test, and while I don't put too much stock it it, I thought some of the profiles were pretty spot-on:
The INTP is above all a thinker and his inner (private) world is a place governed by a strong sense of logical structure. Every experience is to be rigorously analysed, the task of the INTP's mind is to fit each encountered idea or experience into a larger structure defined by logic. For here is the central goal of the INTP: to understand and seek truth. The experience of anything takes a back seat. The INTP is not interested in experiences themselves but is far more fascinated by concepts. The drive to understand things that are not yet understood is a very powerful force in the life of an INTP...

A further result of the Ti function is the concept, lived out by many an INTP, that knowledge is everything. They tend to believe that information is the key to life. All mistakes can be avoided by having the right information at the right time. This has at least a certain logic about it. Where they differ from other temperaments (especially from SP types) is that a large gap may exist between knowing and doing. To know is everything, to do is a lower order necessity, if it is necessary at all. This breeds the potential for lazy aloofness...

One-to-one conversation is preferred in almost every situation. In a group situation, INTPs are sensitive to whether they believe they will be listened to or not. If a dominant (strongly extraverted and loud) person is present, the INTP will withdraw and sulk, believing the dominant person to be a brute. If an INTP speaks, he must be listened to, for he believes his spoken opinions to be important. If not, he withdraws (at least in spirit) and assumes that the people who do not listen lack intelligence. Hence, INTPs make very poor leaders, for they depend too much on the attitudes of others. This is one of the negative sides of the Ne function. INTPs tend to jump to intuitive conclusions, can be fatalistic and have little perseverence. On the other hand, they can make very good assistants to leaders, provided they and the leader are of one mind, for their perceptive analysis can give the leadership useful insights which they may overlook, being too busy with leading. Indeed, INTPs are often glad when someone else takes over the lead, again providing the leader is of the same mind. An INTPs ideal is to provide all the ideas for a project and have a charismatic leader, who agrees with him, carry them out.
On a technical level, I could probably argue "political theories" and their relative merits all day, but on an emotional level I think I'd feel a little sheepish.  I don't  think much about theories of politics because I strongly dislike the grunt work of political organizing, and I write about dry theoretical issues because I love that stuff.  (Obviously, I do it for free.)

The above failures were a source of some anxiety for awhile, but I've kinda moved past it.  Play to your strengths, I say, and a political movement needs technocrats as much as passionate, charismatic leaders.

1 comment:

  1. If anything, political movements these days are made and broken by technocrats. Everyone talks about the power of social media. Does mass movement mean anything these days if it's not tethered to a technocratic apparatus?

    Though it is a bit dry, consider: http://www.amazon.com/Propaganda-Formation-Attitudes-Jacques-Ellul/dp/0394718747