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A technocracy was initially a form of organizational structure or system of governance where decision-makers were selected on the basis of technological knowledge. Technocrats, a term used frequently by journalists in the twenty-first century, can refer to individuals exercising governmental authority because of their knowledge rather than political profile. The concept of a technocracy remains mostly hypothetical, though some nations have been considered as such in the sense of being governed primarily by technical experts in various fields of governmental decision-making. Technocrat has come to mean either "a member of a powerful technical elite" or "someone who advocates the supremacy of technical experts". Examples include scientists, engineers, and technologists who have special knowledge, expertise, or skills, and would compose the governing body, instead of politicians and businesspeople. In a technocracy, decision makers would be selected based upon how knowledgeable and skillful they are in their field.
The term technocracy was originally used to designate the application of the scientific method to solving social problems, in counter distinction to the traditional economic, political, or philosophic approaches. According to the proponents of this concept, the role of money and economic values, political opinions, and moralistic control mechanisms would be eliminated altogether if and when this form of social control should ever be implemented in a continental area endowed with enough natural resources, technically trained personnel, and installed industrial equipment. In such an arrangement, concern would be given to sustainability within the resource base, instead of monetary profitability, so as to ensure continued operation of all social-industrial functions into the indefinite future. Technical and leadership skills would be selected on the basis of specialized knowledge and performance, rather than democratic election by those without such knowledge or skill deemed necessary.
Some uses of the word technocracy refer to a form of meritocracy, a system where the "most qualified" and those who decide the validity of qualifications are the same people. Other applications have been described as not being an oligarchic human group of controllers, but rather administration by discipline-specific science, ostensibly without the influence of special interest groups. The word technocracy has also been used to indicate any kind of management or administration by specialized experts (technocrats) in any field, not just physical science, and the adjective technocratic has been used to describe governments that include non-elected professionals at a ministerial level.
The term technocracy derives from the Greek words τέχνη, tekhne meaning skill and κράτος, kratos meaning power, as in governance, or rule. William Henry Smyth, a Californian engineer, is usually credited with inventing the word "technocracy" in 1919 to describe "the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers", although the word had been used before on several occasions. Smyth used the term "Technocracy" in his 1919 article "'Technocracy'—Ways and Means to Gain Industrial Democracy," in the journal Industrial Management (57). Smyth's usage referred to Industrial democracy: a movement to integrate workers into decision making through existing firms or revolution.
In the 1930s, through the influence of Howard Scott and the Technocracy movement he founded, the term technocracy came to mean, 'government by technical decision making', using an energy metric of value. Scott proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates denominated in units such as ergs or joules, equivalent in total amount to an appropriate national net energy budget, and then distributed equally among the North American population, according to resource availability.
Before the term technocracy was coined, technocratic or quasi-technocratic ideas involving governance by technical experts were promoted by various individuals, most notably early socialist theorists such as Henri de Saint-Simon. This was expressed by the belief in state ownership over the economy, with the function of the state being transformed from one of political rule over men into a scientific administration of things and a direction of processes of production under scientific management. According to Daniel Bell:
"St. Simon's vision of industrial society, a vision of pure technocracy, was a system of planning and rational order in which society would specify its needs and organize the factors of production to achieve them."
Citing the ideas of St. Simon, Bell comes to the conclusion that the "administration of things", where rational judgement is placed above politics, is the hallmark of technocracy.
Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian scientist and social theorist, also anticipated a conception of technocratic process. Both Bogdanov’s fiction and his political writings, which were highly influential, suggest that he expected a coming revolution against capitalism to lead to a technocratic society.
From 1913 until 1922, Bogdanov immersed himself in the writing of a lengthy philosophical treatise of original ideas, Tectology: Universal Organization Science. Tectology anticipated many basic ideas of Systems Analysis, later explored by Cybernetics. In Tectology, Bogdanov proposed to unify all social, biological, and physical sciences by considering them as systems of relationships and by seeking the organizational principles that underlie all systems.
Technocrats are individuals with technical training and occupations who perceive many important societal problems as being solvable, often while proposing technology-focused solutions. The administrative scientist Gunnar K. A. Njalsson theorizes that technocrats are primarily driven by their cognitive "problem-solution mindsets" and only in part by particular occupational group interests. Their activities and the increasing success of their ideas are thought to be a crucial factor behind the modern spread of technology and the largely ideological concept of the "information society". Technocrats may be distinguished from "econocrats" and "bureaucrats" whose problem-solution mindsets differ from those of the technocrats.
The former government of the Soviet Union has been referred to as a technocracy. Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev often had a technical background in education; in 1986, 89% of Politburo members were engineers.
Several governments in European parliamentary democracies have been labeled 'technocratic' based on the participation of unelected experts ('technocrats') in prominent positions. Since the 1990s, Italy has had several such governments (in Italian, governo tecnico) in times of economic or political crisis, including the formation in which economist Mario Monti presided over a cabinet of unelected professionals. The term 'technocratic' has been applied to governments where a cabinet of elected professional politicians is led by an unelected prime minister, such as in the cases of the current Greek government led by economist, Lucas Papademos, and the Czech Republic's 2009–2010 caretaker government presided over by the state's chief statistician, Jan Fischer. In 2013, the government of Tunisia failed to install a technocratic government.
In the article "Technocrats: Minds Like Machines", it is stated that Singapore is perhaps the best advertisement for technocracy: the political and expert components of the governing system there seem to have merged completely. This was underlined in an earlier article in "Wired" by Sandy Sandfort, where he describes the information technology system of the island even at that early date making it effectively intelligent.
Following Samuel Haber, Donald Stabile argues that engineers were faced with a conflict between physical efficiency and cost efficiency in the new corporate capitalist enterprises of the late nineteenth century United States. The profit-conscious, non-technical managers of firms where the engineers work, because of their perceptions of market demand, often impose limits on the projects that engineers desire to undertake.
The prices of all inputs vary with market forces thereby upsetting the engineer's careful calculations. As a result, the engineer loses control over projects and must continually revise plans. To keep control over projects the engineer must attempt to exert control over these outside variables and transform them into constant factors.
Leaders of the Communist Party of China are mostly professional engineers. The Five-year plans of the People's Republic of China have enabled them to plan ahead in a technocratic fashion to build projects such as the National Trunk Highway System, the China high-speed rail system, and the Three Gorges Dam.
The American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen was an early advocate of Technocracy, and was involved in the Technical Alliance as was Howard Scott and M. King Hubbert (who later developed the theory of peak oil). Veblen believed that technological developments would eventually lead toward a socialistic organization of economic affairs. Veblen saw socialism as one intermediate phase in an ongoing evolutionary process in society that would be brought about by the natural decay of the business enterprise system and by the inventiveness of engineers. Daniel Bell sees an affinity between Veblen and the Technocracy movement.
In 1932, Howard Scott and Marion King Hubbert founded Technocracy Incorporated, and proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates. The group argued that apolitical, rational engineers should be vested with authority to guide an economy into a thermodynamically balanced load of production and consumption, thereby doing away with unemployment and debt.
The Technocracy movement was highly popular in the USA for a brief period in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression. By the mid-1930s, interest in the movement was declining. Some historians have attributed the decline of the technocracy movement to the rise of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Historian William E. Akin rejects the conclusion that Technocracy ideas declined because of the attractiveness of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Instead Akin argues that the movement declined in the mid-1930s as a result of the technocrats' failure to devise a 'viable political theory for achieving change' (p. 111 Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900–1941 by William E. Akin). Akin postulates that many technocrats remained vocal and dissatisfied and often sympathetic to anti-New Deal third party efforts.