Expertise is Always Political

This essay was published earlier this month as part of the International Social Science Council Forum on Experts: Past, Present, Future, commissioned and edited by Anna Barbara Sum and Frank Trentmann. Posts in the forum all deal with expertise and experts in a variety of political, social and economic areas and arenas from the 19th century to the present, and from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The editors’ aim is to foster exchange between historians, social scientists and policy experts. Their introductory post can be found here. Jessica Reinisch’s original post is available here.

Expertise is Always Political

By Jessica Reinisch

The debate about the relevance of experts in contemporary democratic societies is unlikely to stop any time soon. From some vantage points, the challenges to “expertise” seem to represent a very fundamental division. On one side are the experts, inherently elitist and anti-democratic, secluded in their ivory towers, attempting to protect their privilege and authority and arrogantly insisting on their superiority, while refusing to acknowledge their biases. On the other are the uneducated masses, resenting, above all, their marginalisation and being told what to do, or simply unsatisfied with their lot and looking for someone to blame.

Nor are these caricatures simply a product of the anti-expert polemic unleashed last year by Michael Gove and his allies. This stark divide reflects a growing gap between voters who have university degrees and those who don’t, as David Runciman and others have pointed out. It is further reinforced by a number of experts’ claims that their expertise is a matter of “pure insight”, aloof from and unpolluted by mere material or political concerns. Both sides tend to agree that there is a gulf of difference between them.

However, this polarised debate makes it easy to forget that experts are, in fact, a far from homogenous group, their authority and status secured by a range of factors. History can help to remind us of the fragility and precariousness of the status of experts and the politically-charged controversies in which they have always been involved (and thrived on). Experts derive their authority from the contexts in which they operate, and when those contexts change, they tend to lose their crowns, at least temporarily.

UNRRA microscopes in Warsaw (Photo: United Nations Archives and Records Management)

In this post I want to juxtapose current concerns about expertise with those that arose about one particular international organization, important but long defunct, in which technical experts played a crucial role. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, UNRRA in short, was one of the first and most ambitious agencies created by the wartime Allies (US, UK, USSR) during the Second World War. UNRRA was an inter-governmental organization, initially composed of 43 member countries, who together agreed its enormous brief: to assist the rehabilitation of nations liberated from Nazi control by bringing emergency food, clothing, medicines, farming and building supplies; and to organize the return home of the many millions of Allied nationals displaced by the war and the Holocaust.

UNRRA was supposed to achieve all this with the help of carefully negotiated agreements for the international pooling of donations and supplies, by which the countries most damaged during the years of foreign occupation and war could begin to rebuild themselves with help from those more affluent and secure. In practice, this meant that the United States was UNRRA’s biggest funder, contributing around 73% of its huge budget. Between 1943 and 1947, UNRRA delivered over 4 billion dollars worth of supplies (which made it the most generously funded refugee and relief programme of its time). At its peak it had a staff of almost 25,000, who distributed aid in 16 so-called “receiving” countries, 12 of them in a belt across southern, central and eastern Europe, where the war had left its most visible traces.

Dr H.Holle (Chief of UNRRA Medical Services) & Dr Franciszek Litwin (Minister of Health), Poland [1946] (Photo): UNRRA/ 4593, UNited Nations Archives and Records Management)

Experts, often referred to as “specialists” or “technicians” in the organization’s files, formed the backbone of UNRRA’s efforts. Without its economists, agricultural and industrial specialists, shipping experts, pathologists, medical officers, sanitary engineers, welfare officers, public relations officers or communication experts, to name but a few, UNRRA would not have been able to do very much at all. In fact, the relief and reconstruction project at the end of the war coincided with a high point of technical experts’ importance and influence. In the wake of the biggest and bloodiest war in history, many politicians — US President Franklin D. Roosevelt among them — as well as the experts themselves, argued that there was no group of people better suited for laying the foundations of a new, peaceful world. This new world would be organized rationally, on the basis of scientific and technological insights, and secured by diplomatic instruments that would prevent irrationality, political excesses and war from ever taking root again. In other words, the answer to future peace and well-being lay in technocracy — a coalition of non-political technical specialists with benign democratic and internationally-minded leaders.

Within UNRRA, not all kinds of expertise were equally valued. Its Washington-based economists were the undeniable expert heavyweights, and frequently outranked and overrode the, say, welfare officers or transport specialists in the field. Questions of age, nationality, gender, geographical location, social status and connectedness all played a role in how well they were paid and how much influence they had in practice. But in spite of clear hierarchies, UNRRA’s various specialists tended to share a sense of professional mission, and a belief in the importance of training, skills and the promises of technocratic government.

And yet, UNRRA and its experts were far from universally trusted or cherished. Although it was a self-proclaimed non-political, ‘technical’ agency, eager to side-step areas of political controversy, it was in fact inextricably entwined with the political debates of the mid-1940s about post-war reconstruction, the nature of the state, international governance, and the global roles of the United States — and there were plenty of people who disagreed with what UNRRA set out to do and how it went about it.

To name but one example: UNRRA’s mandate enshrined the principle of national sovereignty and the importance of healthy, rebuilt nation-states, tied together in a system of multilateral agreements. UNRRA teams would enter countries only if invited by the national authorities to do so. Their explicit instruction was to support the work of the receiving countries’ native officials.

However, barely a year into its post-war field work, it was precisely this focus that irked UNRRA’s critics the most. Amid the increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, American commentators in particular attacked UNRRA as pandering to Soviet aims by propping up apparently ‘hostile regimes’ on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and thereby failing to uphold the moral tenets of its main funders, chiefly the United States. UNRRA’s aid, in other words, was helping to rebuild the wrong kind of nation-states.

Challenging UNRRA’s mandate was akin to challenging its experts’ authority and ability. Indeed, these protests about UNRRA’s work in Eastern Europe were accompanied by a growing chorus of accusations about the apparent incompetence of UNRRA’s staff, its participation in black market activities, and espionage. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, specialists who refused to take sides had become political liabilities.

How could UNRRA’s experts have gone from being saviours of the world in 1943 to posing a threat to Western values in 1946? The answer lies in the importance of the context in which any expert’s authority is constructed. The end of the war-time alliance brought with it the end of a certain vision of apolitical technocracy and multilateralism as represented by UNRRA.

However, it was not the end of the experts themselves. In fact, what is perhaps most striking in the history of experts is not just that their status is tied to certain political priorities which can come and go, but also the flexibility that enables many of them to operate in very different political settings. After UNRRA disbanded in 1947, many of its experts signed up to work in the new international organizations that were better than UNRRA at conforming with Cold War requirements — among them the World Bank, UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — and found plenty of new opportunities to apply their insights.

Conference Report – Languages of Internationalism

At the end of May, Birkbeck hosted the ‘Languages of Internationalism’ conference, the last major event of the Reluctant Internationalists project. Co-organised with our former Visiting Fellow Brigid O’Keeffe (Brooklyn College, CUNY), the conference aimed to shed light on the centrality of language to people’s pursuit and experiences of internationalism. The full programme from the conference can be viewed here, and all of the papers are available to listen to as podcasts via SoundCloud or through the central Birkbeck College iTunes channel.

Language is at the heart of every international enterprise, but as the conference showed, it presents obstacles and dilemmas, as well as opportunities. Many of the papers emphasised frictions and tensions which emerged over the use of languages in international settings. In socialist youth camps during the Cold War, for example, Eastern European delegates displayed resentment towards Soviet translators and Russian speakers as symbols of Soviet cultural imperialism (Diana Georgescu, UCL). In international Jewish congresses during the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, fierce debates broke out over the role of German, Yiddish and Hebrew as languages of transnational Jewish communication (Marc Volovici, Princeton). Many of these tensions stemmed from attempts to deploy language as tools of national or imperial dominance.

As other speakers argued, ideologies could act as languages through which adherence could build transnational solidarities. The language of socialism was explored by a number of speakers. Although Russian was promoted as the common language of the socialist world by the Soviet Union, particularly in Cold War Eastern Europe, socialists from different parts of the world could also find ways of communicating through the language of socialist solidarity without using Russian (Elidor Mëhilli, Hunter College, CUNY). The language of feminism also served to build ties between women from very different cultures and backgrounds, although language difficulties were one of the factors hindering understanding at international events such as the 1975 International Women’s Year conference in Mexico (Jocelyn Olcott, Duke).

The problems of translation and miscommunication have driven many attempts to construct new international forms of communication, most famously in the case of international languages such as Esperanto. The growth of international organisations over the course of the twentieth-century, as well as the expansion of global communication technologies such as the telegraph, encouraged the use of statistics as a tool of international communication, particularly in technical fields such as health (Heidi Tworek, British Columbia). In the cultural field, writers and publishers saw the ‘language of action’ and simplified writing styles of children’s books such as the Curious George series as a medium which could be easily translated across borders, although cultural, political and national differences still continued to pose problems (Yuliya Komska, Dartmouth College).

The conference showed how language could be a tool of communication, solidarity and unity, as well as a force of division and alienation. But it also made clear the centrality of language in the performance, experience, and pursuit of internationalism.

 

Fascist International Health

This blog post by David Brydan is part of, and has been cross-posted from, Remedia blog which examines the history of medicine in dialogue with the present. The project focuses on areas of the history of medicine with particular contemporary relevance. The original post can be accessed here.

In November 1941, health officials and experts from 20 states attended an international tuberculosis conference in Berlin, founding a new international association to fight the disease.[i] On the surface, it appeared to be a straightforward example of the type of international health cooperation that had become increasingly common since the mid-nineteenth century.

The reality, however, was very different. The conference was organized by the Reich Health Office, and involved only Axis, occupied, or neutral states. It took place in the context of a European public health crisis provoked by the Nazi war effort and occupation, a crisis which witnessed the deliberate starvation of millions of Soviet prisoners, restriction of food, fuel and medical supplies across the occupied territories, and the unchecked spread of disease in Jewish ghettos.

Leaders of the International Association Against Tuberculosis, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi 13:3 (1942).

In the midst of this political, military and public health crisis, experts from across Europe continued to cooperate under the rubric of the Nazis’ European ‘New Order’, working together on tuberculosis, typhus, health insurance, and other issues.[ii] Their conferences and meetings consciously echoed the language and practices of pre-war international health. Participants emphasized the technical and humanitarian credentials of international cooperation, and their shared interest in tackling diseases which transcended national borders.

But what, if anything, was distinct about these forms of fascist international health? And how do we square them with the implacable hostility European fascists felt towards the internationalism embodied by organizations such as the League of Nations?

Totalitarian Public Health

For many of those involved, the restructuring of European political life under Nazi dominance provided the opportunity to forge a new, more effective form of international health. Speaking at the 1941 conference, the president of the Reich Tuberculosis Committee, Otto Walter, lamented that international efforts to tackle the disease in the past had not always been effective. The war, he argued, had brought the people of Europe into much closer contact than ever before, ushering in a new era of ‘intimate collaboration’ which would allow them to move beyond the sterile debates of the past and implement real change.[iii] Under the Nazi New Order, the talking shops of pre-war international health would be replaced with vigorous, effective action to stamp out disease.

The flip side of this argument was that cooperation between health experts would act as a stepping-stone towards wider European integration under Nazi dominance. For Walter, public health was the ideal vehicle for strengthening international cooperation, because ‘no state wishes to become better than the others in preserving the health of its own people.’[iv] The Reich Health Minister, Leonardo Conti, compared the new anti-tuberculosis organisations to the political mission of the Anti-Comintern Pact, which reflected the unity of ‘intimately connected peoples, who constitute a bloc with a common destiny.’[v]

Reich Health Minister, Leonardo Conti, visiting the Italian Anti-Tuberculosis Federation in 1941, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi 12:11 (1941).

Some participants argued that this unity was underpinned by a shared commitment to a new form of ‘totalitarian’ public health. Spanish experts in particular argued that the totalitarian states of the New Order had rejected the individualistic medicine of pre-war liberalism. In its place, they argued, these states were creating health systems geared towards the ‘imperious necessity to attend sufficiently to the multitude’, harnessing the power of the state in the interests of the Volk or pueblo as a whole, rather than the priorities of individual patients and doctors.[vi] Others identified a new ‘totalitarian theory’ of health insurance emphasizing labour and the family, which had ‘come to fill a void and resolve a problem which has never, until now, been solved within the framework of national legislation.’[vii]

Widely shared enthusiasm for the idea of totalitarian public health in part reflected the political sympathy many of Europe’s health experts felt towards fascism and the Nazi project. But not all of those involved in these forms of wartime international health cooperation were fascist fellow-travellers. Many had worked with groups such as the League of Nations Health Organisation and the Rockefeller Foundation before the war, and would go on to cooperate with the WHO and UNICEF after it.[viii] Others, including Spanish participants in the 1941 tuberculosis conference such as José Palanca and Gerardo Clavero, belonged to more conservative factions within authoritarian national regimes, and consciously distanced themselves from fascist politics.

For these individuals, however, cooperating with Nazi Germany on public health conveyed a range of benefits, including professional prestige, access to international networks, and the opportunity to negotiate with German authorities for scarce supplies of drugs and vaccines. These professional and practical benefits outweighed political concerns about collaborating with the Nazi regime.

‘The Nazis despised me’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these forms of fascist international health were beset by tensions between the nations involved. Some of the tensions stemmed from ideological differences, including over Nazi attitudes to race, religion and eugenics. Experts in Italy and Spain were more comfortable with the idea of a ‘positive’ Latin eugenics underpinned by Catholic values than with the hard, biological eugenics of the Nazi regime.[ix] This was reflected in patterns of international cooperation in the fields of population policies and racial hygiene. Generally, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese experts were keener to work with each other rather than with their counterparts from Nazi Germany.

A group of Spanish health insurance experts in Romania in 1943, part of a study tour which took in Germany, Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary. Boletín de Información del Instituto Nacional de Previsión 11 (November 1943)

These ideological differences, however, should not be overstated. Far more significant were the tensions stemming from the hierarchical nature of the Nazi New Order. International health under the New Order was largely planned and coordinated from Nazi Germany, and was designed to cement German leadership within the new European scientific community.

Although Italy remained a relatively equal partner until Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943, other countries were emphatically subordinate. The head of the Italian Anti-Tuberculosis Federation, for example, was appointed president of the new International Association Against Tuberculosis established in 1941, but the organization was based in Berlin and run by German health officials with only minor roles reserved for Spanish and Hungarian experts.

Like many of the Europeans who visited Nazi Germany during the war, non-Germanic health experts were conscious of their subordinate status in Nazi racial hierarchies. ‘As a southerner and Mediterranean’, wrote one Spanish expert in his memoirs, ‘I knew at the end of the day that the Nazis despised me.’[x]

The Politics of International Health

International health cooperation during the Second World War represented an effort to forge a new European health system under German control, part of a wider attempt to establish a New Order for science and culture in Europe.[xi] At its peak between mid-1941 and the end of 1942, the future of this New Order seemed assured, attracting the willing participation of health experts and officials from across the political spectrum of the European right. The project failed, however, and left little lasting trace on the international health landscape. Despite the tensions between the participating countries, this failure was the result of Axis military defeat rather than inherent scientific or ideological contradictions.

The history of fascist international health suggests that we should be wary about the rhetoric which often surrounds cross-border medical cooperation. The humanitarian and scientific benefits of effective international cooperation cannot be denied. But as the recent case of the British medical students who volunteered to serve with Islamic State in Syria suggests, such work can be harnessed to a wide range of political and ideological projects, from liberal internationalism, to fascism or religious fundamentalism. International health is indeed a technical and humanitarian endeavour, but it is also a deeply political one.

[i] ‘La fondazione dell’Associazione Internazionale contro la Tubercolosi’, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi, 13:3 (1942): 236–59; ‘L’associazione internazionale contro la tubercolosi’, Rivista Italiana d’Igiene, 2:1 (1942): 78–9.

[ii] David Brydan, ‘Axis Internationalism: Spanish Health Experts and the Nazi “New Europe”, 1939-1945’, Contemporary European History 25:2 (2016): 291–311.

[iii] ‘La fondazione dell’Associazione Internazionale contro la Tubercolosi’, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi, 13:3 (1942): 244.

[iv] Ibid. 242.

[v] Ibid. 241.

[vi] Laín Entralgo, ‘Medicina y Política’, , (1 Feb. 1942): 3.

[vii] Pedro Arnaldos Gimeno, Los Seguros Sociales en los Estados Totalitarios (Madrid: Publicaciones del Instituto Nacional de Previsión, 1941).

[viii] Brydan, ‘Axis Internationalism’: 299-300.

[ix] Marius Turda and Aaron Gillette, Latin Eugenics in Comparative Perspective (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[x] Pedro Laín Entralgo, Descargo de Conciencia (1930–1960) (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 1976): 295.

[xi] Benjamin G. Martin, The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Podcasts

A selection of podcasts from our conferences and workshops are now available to listen to and download. The recordings can be accessed via SoundCloud or through the central Birkbeck College iTunes channel.

The podcasts available to download include Professor Helen Graham’s (RHUL) keynote lecture at the Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation conference and panel discussions from the Debating the Cold War workshop held in 2016. In addition, panel and roundtable discussions from our workshop on Writing ‘Outsiders’ into the History of International Public Health are also available.

More podcasts will be added in due course, including recordings from our final conference, Languages of Internationalism, in May.

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Statement in support of Central European University

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The Reluctant Internationalists research group is deeply alarmed by the law passed recently by the Hungarian government that will effectively shut down the internationally renowned and acclaimed Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. CEU has been at the forefront of research on nationalism, women and gender, history of science and medicine, and transnational history. Its diverse academic community, including students and staff from all over the world, has made significant contributions to these and many other academic fields and disciplines. CEU has taken a leading role in training several generations of students whose expertise has, in turn, greatly enriched not just Hungarian life.

Members of this research group have benefitted from the unique resources offered by CEU in the region. All of us have collaborated and exchanged ideas with CEU faculty and students. We are proud to join the long list of academic institutions, Nobel laureates and individual faculty members in expressing our support for CEU and our conviction in its continuing relevance and purpose.

The bill passed by the Hungarian government, which was not consulted with any stakeholders nor debated in parliament, severely threatens the freedom of academic research, and breaches law-making procedures. Therefore, we urge President János Áder not to sign the bill and to refer it to the Constitutional Court of Hungary. Shutting down CEU would be an unimaginable loss for Hungarian cultural, political, professional and intellectual life, as well as for regional and international knowledge and research, academic freedom, and a severe loss for democracy.

The Reluctant Internationalists stand with CEU.

 

Dora Vargha (University of Exeter, UK)

Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck, University of London, UK)

Ana Antic (University of Exeter, UK)

David Brydan (Birkbeck, University of London, UK)

Johanna Conterio (Flinders University, Australia)

Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College, CUNY, US)

Holly Case (Brown University, US)

Brigid O’Keeffe (Brooklyn College, CUNY, US)

Friederike Kind-Kovacs (University of Regensburg, Germany)

Francesca Piana (University of Binghamton, US)

Esther D. Kim (Birkbeck, University of London, UK)

Siobhan Morris (Birkbeck, University of London, UK)

Jessica Pearson (Macalester College, US)

 

If you would like to express your support, there are several ways. Please consult https://www.ceu.edu/category/istandwithceu