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.

 

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

Workshop Report- Socialist Internationalism

Our-experience-to-our-friends-(2)On February 3rd over twenty researchers gathered at Birkbeck to discuss the history of socialist internationalism during the Cold War, a field which has seen increasing scholarly interest over recent years and which has been of particular interest to the Reluctant Internationalists project.

As Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck) explained in the introduction to the conference, recent historiography has complicated traditional images of the Cold War as a period of blocked mobility, revealing the extent of cooperation and exchange both behind and beyond the Iron Curtain. The conference aimed to discuss these patterns of mobility, promote dialogue between Soviet and East European historiographies, and explore the global dimensions of socialist exchange.

The first panel focused on culture within and beyond the socialist world. Kristin Roth-Ey (SSEES) questioned the traditional focus on the exchange of high culture in the socialist world, arguing that it was less important than the objects of mass culture – Bollywood musicals, Latin American melodramas, radio broadcasts and the press – which circulated between the Soviet Union and the Third World. Soviet cultural production, like its technology and industry, was dominated by the ‘aesthetic of the big’, and it was through this mass culture that ideas about the Second and Third Worlds were exchanged. Paul Betts (Oxford) introduced material from a forthcoming photo exhibition organised by the Socialism Goes Global project on Tito’s diplomatic missions to Africa. Official images of Tito on safari, signing trade deals, watching traditional dancers and opening new hospitals presented an aesthetics of equality, highlighting the fraternal mixing which supposedly characterised relations between Yugoslavia and socialist-leaning Africa, in contrast to the racial hierarchies of the former imperial powers. Simon Huxtable (Loughborough) discussed Cold War television as a transnational phenomenon. Intervision, the Eastern Bloc’s broadcasting organisation, was designed as a vehicle for socialist internationalism, promoting programmes such as the Intervision song contest. But while viewers in Eastern Europe were exposed to programmes from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, they also had access to western programming, in some cases broadcast directly from the West, in others cases purchased or copied by socialist broadcasters. Intervision thus created a broader space of socialist identity, while at the same time introducing Polish viewers to Sesame Street. Katarina Lichvarova (Courtauld Institute) discussed Soviet avant garde art movements, using the Dvizhenie group to explore the circulation of ideas and exhibitions both within the Eastern Bloc and across the Iron Curtain. Dina Fainberg (City University) concluded the panel by showing how Soviet journalists presented the US counter-culture protests of 1968 as evidence of the growing hold of socialist values. Appearing alongside reports of the Soviet intervention in Prague, however, these accounts lent themselves to subversive readings and risked undermining the notions of socialist international community they were intended to promote.

socialist 1The second panel shifted focus to trade and exchange. Alessandro Iandolo (Oxford) used relations between the Soviet Union and Ghana in the early 1960s to explore the role of development cooperation in Cold War socialist internationalism. Soviet attempts to promote a model of economic development based on industrialisation and mechanised agriculture appealed to the Ghanaian government, which was keen to gain support for its hydroelectric and infrastructure projects, but were met with suspicion from the former imperial powers in West Africa. Kristy Ironside (Manchester) discussed the difficulties in comparing money and prices in the communist and capitalist worlds. Soviet officials systematically drove down prices for everyday goods from the early 1950s, but were frustrated by their inability to promote these achievements to the rest of the world because of the difficulty of translating socialist economic indicators to western price models. Katarzyna Jezowska (Oxford) showed how the Polish pavilion at the 1956 Damascus trade fair was designed to convey a specific sense of socialist modernity, using modernist aesthetics and technological innovation to promote the achievements of Polish reformers. Yakov Feygin (Pennsylvania) examined the history of ‘mathematical internationalism’ – economic experts in both socialist and capitalist economies united by a belief in the power of maths and computing to secure economic development. The diplomatic thaw of 1967 created a space for Soviet experts to participate in international exchanges on economic reform and development, but their attempts to introduce markets and elements of supply and demand into the Soviet economy broke down in the early 1980s.

socialist 2

The third panel explored models of socialist development, focusing particularly but not exclusively on medicine, urban planning and the environment. Kate Lebow (Oxford) presented her research on the memoir-writing competitions organized by Polish sociologists among workers and peasants in the interwar period, which unveiled, among other things, a number of assumptions about the place of home and homeland in global networks, and about rights and justice, in personal narratives. Timothy Nunan (Freie U, Berlin) used the case of the Afghan regime of the 1980s to explore the overlap between socialist and Islamist internationalisms. Rather than making a distinction between the two, Afghan socialists argued that they were also Islamists. Although socialist internationalism was important to them, it also acted as a bridge to wider debates about anti-imperialism and pan-Islamism. Robert Balogh (Budapest) explored Hungarian forestry research into Scots pine, showing how experiments into agricultural, industrial and environmental aspects of pine cultivation circulated between Eastern Europe, Western Europe and international organisations such as the FAO. Jo Laycock (Sheffield Hallam) examined the complex network of non-governmental actors, governmental administrators and recipients of relief and their interactions in post-genocide Armenia. Dora Vargha (Exeter) concluded the panel with a discussion of the polio vaccination campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, which developed at the intersection of liberal internationalism, international scientific networks, and socialist internationalism. The socialist world was seen as the perfect place to carry out global vaccination trials because of the nature of socialist health system, while international experts argued at the same time that there was ‘no Cold War’ in the fight against disease.

The fourth panel continued discussions about the global spread and reach of socialist projects. James Mark (Exeter) discussed changing representation of Cubans in Hungary through photographs and photo journalism, where he detected a shift from Cubans being portrayed as heroes to featuring as poor workers on the periphery. Tobias Rupprecht (Exeter) explored the East European fascination with global forms of free-market authoritarianism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For many reformers across the region, he argued, ‘the West’ was not the only source of inspiration; economically successful dictatorships as Chile, South Korea and Singapore also provided crucial lessons. Ana Antic (Exeter) talked about Yugoslav psychiatrists’ technical aid missions to Guinea in the 1960s, and considered the extent to which they contributed a Marxist perspective to transcultural psychiatry. Psychiatrists’ discussion of African ‘primitivism’, she pointed out, mirrored their perceptions of ‘primitive’ patients in Yugoslavia itself.