Technocracy and Empire

by Henry Farrell on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

If Red Plenty addresses the present through a reconstructed past, TMFTF does it through an imagined future. It asks the reader to think about how we can get from here to there, but not by presenting a Single Great Plan That Will Resolve Everything If Only It Is Implemented Comprehensively. Instead, it depicts its better future as the result of a process of discovery, where none of the characters really understand the consequences of what they are doing at any point, but they still keep trying. Their various imperfect efforts (sometimes working against each other; sometimes reinforcing) plot a possible path out of the mess we are in, into a different and better mess than we could think that they (or we) might reasonably have hoped for. Some characters try to extend and change the international rule of law; others use organized violence; others engage in sporadic individual acts of terror and despair. Which is effective and which is necessary? It isn’t clear to us, or to the book’s characters (who change their minds as they go along), any more than we really know the paths to effective action are clear in the world we live in.

Thus, on the one hand, TMFTF illustrates an imaginary path through which a better, imaginary future might be discovered. We don’t know whether there were better paths or better futures in this fictional microcosm, and never will. Novels are like real history, in that they never clarify the underlying causal forces (if they do, they stop being novels and start being social science). We don’t have access to a counterfactual novel in which the sons of Kali decided not to take up violence, any more than we have access to a counterfactual past in which Gandhi decided to take up the armed struggle against British imperialism. But not knowing isn’t an excuse for not acting (while TMFTF is not a policy tract, it is certainly a political novel).

On the other, novels differ markedly from real history in that they are the product of the writer picking and choosing (perhaps consciously, perhaps as the result of some scarcely articulable habitus). A novel is a different kind of ” imaginary relationship to a real situation,” as TMFTF describes the notion of ideology. It can help make sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world (a phrase that KSR borrows from the pragmatist William James, and quotes at least twice in the book).

A naive reading would suggest that TMFTF tries to represent the Sole True Ideology, even if not the One True Plan. I don’t think that is true, even if it likely represents KSR’s best guesses, his informed representation of how we might strike on a path out of our dilemmas. A different – and I think better – interpretation is that insofar as the novel has a political purpose, it is to get us to start people arguing about the right things, beginning to taking seriously the notion that we can escape from the political and economic trap we are in and figuring out what to do better, likely disagreeing much of the the time as the characters in the novel disagree, and sometimes working at odds with each other, but still moving half-crabwise towards a success that is cobbled out of failures. In other words, it is an invitation to get thinking, get arguing, get doing and get changing. And since I’m better at the arguing part than the doing or the changing, that’s what I’m going to do.

KSR’s best guesses, as I read them, stem from a particular understanding of our current capitalist moment, and how it is likely to develop. His imagined world is one that is dominated by markets and technocracy.

In this world, the Ministry For the Future, without ever quite planning it, becomes a kind of Modern Prince, seizing and repurposing technocratic and market means that it can turn to radical purposes. Social media platforms are the most visible expression of how global capitalism weaves itself into the lives of ordinary people – but they can be replaced by a new social network that displaces Facebook and its ilk. Global finance can be reconfigured by convincing the technocrats that run the central banks to change their policies. Blockchain can be weaponized to create new financial instruments that are centered on solving the problem of climate change. All this seems possible, because we live in a world where markets and technocracy have outpaced the global bourgeoisie that first set them in motion. Everything is decentralized, and the apparent elite is smaller and less powerful than it seems on its face. The chief servants of the order that they have created – the people who run the central banks – defect, because they are pragmatists, and figure out that they need to save the world to do their job. The result, as one character puts it towards the end of the book, is that the world is “saved by fucking bankers.” That’s not all that’s important in the narrative – technology, for example, plays a key role too. But it is a big part of what’s important.

The reason I want to argue is that this isn’t the world that I see us living in right now (obviously, I could be completely wrong, and I’ve skin in the game as I and my co-author have written a lot about this, and we are writing more). As I see it, the standard technocracy-meets-Davos-meets-markets-that-no-one-is-in-control-of account of the world that both the left and the right believe is crumbling. Far from being decentralized, that falling world created the machineries of its own downfall – global networks that are being weaponized by states against each other. It is incredibly hard for newcomers to displace existing social media networks because of network externalities – the more people are in them, the stickier they become, because their value is a function of the number of users they connect. Global finance is becoming ever less technocratic, as states begin to take control, turning global financial networks into tools of coercion. Decentralized blockchains are less likely to succeed than central bank backed digital currencies, which have surveillance and state control built into their architectures. All of this centralization may itself be unsustainable – but the future that it will give way to is less likely a new decentralized global architecture that citizens can control for global benefit, than a fragmented world in which national states reassert their domestic power while looking as best they can to impose it on others.

This implies a different analysis of the relationship between empire and technocracy than KSR’s. TMFTF identifies US power as the source and for a long time, the mainstay of the “soft power imperialism and economic dominance” that created the globalized world that we live in. The US was the main author of the IMF, of structural adjustment, and the panoply of purportedly technocratic institutions that helped sustain a world where the US had all the assets. But after US power, the technocrats can escape the logic of empire. They are pragmatists, and can be persuaded that the best way to do their jobs is to save everyone. The world of great power domination described at the beginning of the book, where “the US does what it wants,” regardless of international law, gradually turns into one where Ministry officials don’t need even to pretend to take the US and other great power wannabes seriously.

The near future that I see, in contrast, is one where US soft power imperialism continues to be strong – and where the most plausible threats to it come from other states aspiring to the throne. We are living in a world in which the old logic of geopolitics is returning, albeit in very complicated ways. Quinn Slobodian’s history, The Globalists, depicts neo-liberalism as a political project aimed at hemming in imperium (the ability of nation-states to assert authority), via an extension of dominium (international flows of money and of commodities). Now, we are seeing imperium reasserting itself – but in a world that has been remade by dominium, creating new opportunities and new vulnerabilities. Nation states are re-asserting themselves in a world of flows and hidden ties and intimacies. This suggests a different trajectory than TMFTF’s.

Put differently, the moment when it was easiest for international organizations, cross-national movements of people, and temporary cross-national alliances of civil society to have influence was the moment where globalization was at its peak, so that different countries’ economies commingled, generating both pressures for change, and opportunities for people and organizations to work across different jurisdictions to generate that change. That peak may be past. If – as seems likely – we are descending into an era of decoupling, and increased national control of the economy, those opportunities will dwindle. International organizations will be weaker. Increased suspicion and dwindling linkages mean that it will be harder for non-state actors to work together across national borders. Global networks will become more contested internationally, and more entrenched (thanks to growing links with the state) in their home jurisdictions.

This is a more pessimistic understanding of world affairs than TMFTF’s. But there are still opportunities for change. It isn’t only central bankers who can be pragmatic – indeed, they are often more ideological and less pragmatic than TMFTF suggests. Empire has been willing to commingle pragmatism and ruthlessness where necessary, including the US imperium. At one point, TMFTF describes a future Head of the Federal Reserve as refusing to consider the possibility that it might support another currency.

I don’t see how we can get into the business of backing a currency that isn’t the US dollar,” she said when Mary was done. “The Federal Reserve exists to protect and stabilize the dollar, nothing else. That means stabilizing prices more generally, which means we pay attention to unemployment levels too, and try to help there as we can. So this idea is not really in our purview, and if we tried this new alternative currency and it somehow destabilized or harmed the status of the dollar, we would be worse than derelict in our duty.”

But as Adam Tooze’s history of the 2008-2009 crisis emphasizes, the Fed is very definitely and self-consciously in the business of backing other currencies when necessary. Back then, it feared that if it didn’t provide massive swap lines and repo facilities to other central banks, the world economy would crash. It furthermore knew that precisely because of dollar sovereignty, it was the only actor that could do this at sufficient scale. In contrast, it was the technocrats of the European Union who were unwilling to provide large scale help to their own member states when their debt became unsustainable, without attaching swingeing conditions that even the IMF quailed at.

I don’t want for a moment to provide a general defense of empire, the cruelties of which abound. But if my alternative understanding of the likely near future is right (a big if), the political possibilities of dealing with climate change are going to have to run through empire, whether the US empire of global finance, China’s efforts to create an alternative, or the more subtle imperium of the European Union’s acquis and regulatory influence. The implication is then that we are mostly only going to see political action against climate change when empire is sufficiently cognizant of its self-interest to solve broader problems, and global cooperation when different empires are willing to set aside their differences to work together. “Mostly” is key here – no political logic explains everything, and there is always a gap between ideology and reality. There will still be tacit interconnections, technologies moving across borders, trade and investment (if truncated to some greater or lesser degree by security fears).

In this world, other possibilities might open up. Under the Biden administration, the US is changing how it thinks about the world in ways that I at least didn’t expect. For example – who would have predicted that the US would press for a minimum global tax rate for business, looking to limit its ability to relocate to minimize its tax burden, and threaten countries that taxed it too heavily? That doesn’t do much that directly addresses climate change – but it offers a model for how a powerful state can press for global regulatory changes. The US exercises extraordinary power through its control of the global financial system (exercised through its power to regulate the dollar clearing system, and influence SWIFT, the global financial messaging system). Nicholas Mulder has written powerfully about the destructive consequences of sanctions. Yet he also muses about how a left-leaning foreign policy might direct sanctions against tax evasion and global financial oligarchy, and elsewhere argues that “Green New Dealers should consider recasting the tools of US hegemony, beginning with carbon tariffs and corporate sanctions,” as a complement to a Green lend-lease program of international technology transfer. Todd Tucker, who contributes elsewhere to this seminar, argues for a new left internationalist program, where the US would look to reshape international law so that it supported rather than hindered domestic efforts to address climate change. These might be reinforced by, or reinforce European efforts to impose carbon border taxes.

The limits to these possibilities are just as clear. They will only work so long as empires have some self-interested reasons to implement them, and actions which cut against this self interest will not succeed, even if they are necessary. They will be compromised by the internal politics of empire – the gross inequalities that it involves and the desire to maintain them. They will be complicated – at the very best – by the politics of clashes among emerging empires and with aspiring ones. And they will be entirely insufficient. Real action will both have to engage with the realities of the world we live in, and the commitment to something that is radically better. The argument over American empire between Perry Anderson and Adam Tooze (whose response is yet to come out; presumably delayed by the events of the last year) is one manifestation of these tensions. But if we are not living in a world of self-organizing and decentralized global markets, and instead are being propelled along a trajectory to new kinds of imperium, these are the tensions and the contradictions that we are going to have to live with. I don’t know what a TMFTF written in this world would look like, but TMFTF has been one of the main spurs to the broader argument of a book that Abraham Newman and I are now writing. And if other better thinkers have been spurred as well, then TMFTF will have done important work.