Progressives and the politics of expertise

‘Experts’ have been in the news a lot recently. Prominent Vote Leave campaigners in the run-up to last year’s EU membership referendum, including Michael Gove, suggested that we should reject the views of ‘experts’ who insisted that Brexit would be disastrous for the UK. This anti-expert sentiment seems to be more widely held, and has been a central aspect of the transnational surge in what is being called ‘right wing populism’, from UKIP supporters to Trump voters.

The response of many left-of-centre or ‘progressive’ commentators and politicians has been to denounce this anti-expert tendency as anti-intellectualism. A cartoon in the New Yorker earlier this week depicted passengers demanding to be allowed to take the controls of an airliner because the pilots are elitist and “have lost touch with regular passengers like us”. This sort of mocking attitude toward the critique of government by expert is not only unhelpful in terms of developing political conversation and bridge-building at a time of increasing polarisation, but seems curiously elitist.

Progressive, left wing politics used to centre on the notion of creating social change in order to bring about fairer, more equal, less stratified societies. Progressives, in diametric opposition to conservatives (who sought to ‘conserve’ social order, including traditional elites and hierarchies), were engaged in a sustained critique of elitism with the aim of overthrowing it. So why do they now seek to defend government by experts, an explicitly elitist model of politics?

In a longer blog for the Huffington Post (click here to read), I argue that one of the achievements of neoliberalism as the dominant theory and practice that defines the horizons of our political economic life today has been to convince many people – progressives included – that economics in particular is a science identical to natural sciences like physics and that ‘the economy’ is a natural phenomenon to be studied. Yet social and natural sciences are fundamentally different.

Experts on aspects of the social world such as politics and economics can and should be challenged (the neoliberal consensus among many economic ‘experts’ led us to the global financial crisis of 2007, the effects of which we are still feeling today). Knowledge and expertise about the social world and socially produced phenomena like the economy are inescapably ‘value-laden’, partisan, normative. In other words, particular understandings of politics and economics, however ‘expert’, always represent particular interests, social groups and individuals differently. Politics and economics are not neutral, and our knowledge of them is categorically different to a pilot’s knowledge of how to fly an aeroplane. So progressives may wish to think again about their position on the politics of expertise as they respond to the unfolding challenges before them in the era of Brexit and Trump, or risk losing some of their own core values in the debate.

Dr. Ben Whitham, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester.

About Ben Whitham

Ben Whitham is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester.
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