Grappling with Technocratic Solutionism (aka, Is Vox OK?)

Draft written summer 2021

So, Vox published an incredibly frustrating — but revealing — “Well, actually, we need the police” article yesterday (link in comments). And I’m going to break down why the article doesn’t say what it thinks it says, but instead demonstrates the fundamental bias and fear that animates such arguments; and to do so I’m going to rely on a document from Interrupting Criminalization, an abolitionist org co-founded by Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie (link in comments). And then I’m going to talk about “Brooklyn 9-9” for a minute.

But let’s start with the Vox piece, an exemplar of its publisher. Vox established itself and has always been committed to a particular kind of technocratic progressivism, a research-first, we’re-the-most-rational-guys-in-the-room approach best demonstrated by their practice of reducing incredibly complex social problems to 600-word “explainers.” (Who needs depth and context, goes the philosophy of technocratic solutionism, when these things are actually quite straightforward if one just looks at them rationally?!) Earlier this year, German Lopez, the author of the article in question, penned a 600-word piece about how Joe Biden could beat vaccine polarization; technocratic solutionism is premised on just that kind of inanity and arrogant bullshit.

And this new article is no different. On Twitter, Lopez introduced the article by claiming, “I did the reading. Defund the police doesn’t work.” But of course, Lopez has done very, very little of the reading, as evidenced by his failure to address any of the points made by Interrupting Criminalization.

And perhaps you might offer a technocratic solutionist kind of rejoinder, similar to Lopez’s own deflections: he was looking at research, not at stuff presented by “activists.”

But here’s the thing: Mariame Kaba doesn’t flex on her credentials, because she is committed to ending bullshit credentialist hierarchies. But: she has a PhD in sociology from Northwestern, and has spent her entire life not only in “activism” but in research on policing, prisons, and their role in causing violence. Andrea Ritchie, Interrupting Criminalization co-founder, is a lawyer. Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, co-founders of Critical Resistance, another abolitionist organization, both have PhDs and have spent their lives in academia, publishing extensive peer-reviewed work; reading Gilmore’s “Golden Gulag” is to read an extraordinarily researched sociological treatise.

But German Lopez — with a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Cincinnati, less than a decade out of college, and a portfolio of reported topics ranging from energy, to politics, to policing, to Covid (which is to say, no particular history or specialization in any field; he’s a generalist) — has “done the reading.”


(At a certain point, technocratic solutionism is indistinguishable from the Ivermectin crowd; both are predicated on an imagined intellectual superiority.)

As smug and condescending as this attitude is in any context, it’s worth noting what enables it in abolition, in particular: there is a persistent disbelief, not only from the technocratic solutionists or cop-apologists but also from those who treat abolition as a trend or a hashtag interchangeable with ACAB, that abolition could possibly have a rigorous intellectual lineage, because much of that rigorous intellectual lineage has been cultivated by Black women and femmes. This disbelief is misogynoir, full stop.

And since misogynoir has come up, let’s detour for a moment to the verdict on R. Kelly: “justice,” claim some, although a more accurate description might be “A pointed demonstration of how the criminal legal system fails to deliver justice to Black women at every level.” Dave Chapelle made a sketch about Kelly’s abuse nearly twenty years ago; it was widely known, and widely joked about. That it took so long for a trial and a verdict isn’t simply a matter of “justice delayed” but rather that the system is set up to protect white men and wealthy men — even Black men, if they are rich enough, or only doing violence to Black women — and to compound harm to women and femmes of color, especially Black and Indigenous women and femmes.

But reckoning with such a reality requires us to take a perspective bigger than a single moment in time, and it’s the inability to do so which renders Lopez’s argument so utterly hackish. The perennial rhetorical flourish of technocratic solutionism is to define a complex and entrenched social issue, and the possibilities by which we might address it, so narrowly as to depict a certain answer as self-evident.

This was as far as I wrote — there was a whole outline getting into detailed questions about what constitutes “crime” and how we measure those things (hint: police control our understanding of whether or not we need policing), as well as a long look at the narrative arc of “Brooklyn 9-9,” a show which ultimately recognized that the arc of their protagonist’s maturity meant that he had to become an ex-cop.

I was fired up and ready to tackle all of these topics — to rebut and refute, using logic and critical thinking; after all, technocratic solutionists claim that logic and critical thinking is the basis of their own value system… therefore, shouldn’t logical argument be compelling?

But here’s the thing: technocratic solutionism isn’t actually about logic or critical thinking — it’s about reductive dismissals of broader analysis in favor of narrow questions that serve power. German Lopez doesn’t work at Vox anymore; he got hired by the New York Times, because fomenting a crime-panic narrative and supporting cops has never been bad for anybody’s career.

And the emptiness of the Vox ideology of technocratic solutionism is being exemplified instead by their response to the SBF/FTX meltdown: Vox has been a consistent cheerleader of effective altruism, a technocratic solutionist update to the age-old notion of “noblesse oblige” that pretends to be radical when, in fact, it’s just a mashup of noblesse oblige with classical utilitarianism. The emptiness and triteness of effective altruism was pretty apparent even before one of its most prominent benefactors prompted the meltdown of the entire crypto industry (speaking of emptiness and triteness….), but Vox is still trying to redeem the ideology, publishing lengthy, desperate intellectual rescue efforts about how the problem isn’t billionaires, it’s “lack of oversight.” (No, seriously. The bankruptcy is not just on FTX’s balance sheets.)

At a certain point, it’s not worth anybody’s time to try to persuade people so committed to their self-delusion. Technocratic solutionism is delusional, power-serving bullshit. And ultimately, that’s really all there is to say about it.

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