Future Personae: The Political Engineer
7 min read

Future Personae: The Political Engineer

This essay is the first in a series called ‘Future Personae’, sketching portraits of archetypes and disciplines which could change the future of humanity. Today, I’ll discuss the political engineer.
Future Personae: The Political Engineer

This essay is the first in a series called ‘Future Personae’, sketching portraits of archetypes and disciplines which could change the future of humanity. It’s a rough draft, and as much a call to action as a theoretical claim, because the only way to test these ideas is to actualize them. Hopefully, this piece will inspire you a little to build connections between your own thoughts and take a step further in your own projects. Today, I’ll discuss the political engineer. Not a flashy founder or galaxy-brained intellectual, a political engineer is simply interested in making things work. Pragmatically and reasonably, they learn what they need to build the new, fix the broken, and preserve the fragile.

Whither the Engineer?

Modern society is premised on the assumptions of science. Social science discovers facts about the world, which we then use as we see fit. Simple, no? Occasionally, political philosophers will even pipe up about the ends for the sake of which we should be using these facts. Either of these can be a lifetime’s work - adding much-needed rigour to the social sciences, or exhorting one’s political community to think over its values - but neither, in itself, gets anything done. Scientists have abandoned the practical, indefinable wisdom necessary for action, and philosophers have shown little interest in actualizing their ideas. A gear is missing from the machine. There is a yawning gap between the ends described by the political philosopher and the facts provided by the political scientist, which can only be filled by the political engineer.

“Using” facts, as it turns out, is not at all simple. In many ways, it is more complex than discovering them. The scientist may repeat clear and proven processes of discovery, but engineers often lack that luxury. Even where it is well-understood how to build a bridge, that was not always so. Any software engineer faced with an empty screen knows that the engineer is an inventor as much as they are a scientist. Nor is it ever possible to systematize all the contextual engineering wisdom which can only come through experience. And we can’t ask partisan politics - political engineering is inherently neither progressive nor conservative, since it seeks reform and preservation alike when each is pragmatically required. While the analogy to structural or software engineering is very literal, we have to ask what, exactly, the political engineer is building?

We can hardly be blind to the potential abuses of such a power to shape human action. After all, social engineering (often rightly) gets a bad rap, and a simple creed of political engineering may sound sinister. Rousseau’s dictum that “the greatest instrument of man is man, and the wisest is he who uses that instrument the best” becomes deadly in the hands of Robespierre. Even the very term ‘political’ is suspect, where it connotes irresolvable conflict rather than structured community formation - but wouldn’t you expect that from a society which has forgotten how to engineer healthy politics? Humans are political animals, and the social structures we create can be better or worse. There's a spectrum between a Machiavelli or a Roosevelt trying to create political outcomes across the entire polity, and doing the same on a smaller scale to build social structures in private life. As varied as the ends of human beings are, so ought the goals of the engineer to be.

Rather than prescribing objectives for the political engineer, then, let’s stay simple: they create intentional structures of human interaction. Sometimes, with enough authority behind it, the structures can simply be laid down explicitly, as religious authorities do. Priests of all religious denominations interpret teachings and guide their flock, but the most thorough example of religious political engineering would be monastic Rules. The Rule of St. Benedict, for instance, organized every detail of a community towards religious ends. Since few secular causes possess the authority of revelation over their followers (and most of those causes are very bad ones), we can’t rely on religious institutions as a guide. More often, authority and consent must be developed within the engineering process. Since our institutions don’t seem to like studying political engineering for its own sake, the best place to find it is where necessity compels them to. Where do we find attempts to teach political engineering? First and foremost, this is not in political science departments but in business schools - as leadership or management.

Educating the Engineer

The modern manager (and, to some extent, a military officer or government official) is a political engineer insofar as they must structure their subordinates’ actions to achieve success. They must develop Aristotle’s ‘practical wisdom’, a combination of insight and instinct which decides the appropriate action for its context. One can understand why this fuzzy virtue, which cannot be taught or tested except through action, is not part of college syllabi. A professor or administrator can be a political engineer, but not in a way which teaches their students that art, unless their students too become professors or administrators.

While not an exhaustive set of prescriptions, here’s a brainstorm of some tools which might be useful to a student:

  • Rhetoric and persuasion, from Aristotle to modern marketing
  • Group psychology and the art of listening
  • Robert's Rules of Order and similar methods for conducting meetings
  • Six Sigma, Kaizen, Agile, and other such management philosophies
  • The history of megaprojects such as dam-building and the Space Race
  • Social graph analysis, or at least the idea and its take-aways
  • The general ability to do academic or legal research on a given topic
  • Biographies of great men and women
  • The ability to make an audience laugh
  • Demonstrated loyalty to a circle of close friends
  • Experience documenting your own goals and actions
  • A firm sense of perspective

If this sounds like a wishy-washy HR checklist, it's because they're often trying to get at the same thing. However, while recruiters are interested in finding something they don't fully understand, our job is to make it explicit.

As for students, the best chances young people have to become political engineers during their education are the least academic - with the most formalized, most controversial, and often the most challenging, being leadership in Greek life. Developing and preserving intentional social structures in a house full of rowdy drunks is a long way from pondering the truths of philosophy, but it’s one of the few chances students get to practice political engineering with the necessary independence. Regardless, taking responsibility in some kind of shared project, like event planning, or a shared community, will provide similar lessons without the hangovers. Non-academic attempts to explicitly implement political engineering include online communities, fraternal organizations, group houses, and - someday - charter cities. However, it also takes some engineering to maintain small groups structured for a particular activity, as anyone trying to manage a reading group or five-a-side team knows.

Finding the Engineer

Now that we’ve seen how little political engineering is explicitly taught as its own discipline, let’s look for examples out in the wild. There is a simple dilemma involved: the more politics is in a social structure, the harder it is to engineer. We should see the clearest forms of political engineering when the engineer has the most power over a social space and the least pressure from it. The obvious answer is the political aspect of software engineering. Whether one is building a video game, a social app, or even some internal business software, one consideration of design decisions must be how the product will create or affect a community of users. This is an application of political engineering, separated only from other types of community formation by, often, a lack of an explicit self-awareness.

Of course, this also gives rise in most cases to a second form of technologically-enabled political engineering: the moderators and administrators who manage these online spaces. Looking at the typical state of relations between users and moderators, I’d say we have a long way to go in engineering better communities. However, it’s clear that there are better and worse online communities and, as such, there must be ways to move from worse types to better ones. What are the contexts which enable good community-formation? What kind of rules are healthy or unhealthy? What are the unwritten laws a mod should observe? How should they use their judgement in edge cases? No fixed answers, but these are the sort of questions an aspiring engineer should examine.

There is an obvious reason why the private sector should have a clearer understanding of political engineering than academia (government bureaucrats generally have a very effective understanding of political engineering, but it’d be more than their job’s worth to tell us). The first goes back to the earliest days of political theory, to Classical philosophers who lived in an age of personal autocracy or direct democracy. In that world, as Socrates argued, the economic art and the royal art are one. The ability to govern a household well is simply the art of rule on a smaller scale. Now, in Athens, the household was the primary unit of production - hence the word ‘economics’ from ‘oikonomia’, or ‘household management’. The modern analogy is not the nuclear family, but the corporation. Thus, just as the economic art is the royal art, the management of corporate business is one implementation of political engineering. The political engineer in a liberal society works through persuasion and balance, rather than command and compulsion, but the relationship between political and economic arts remains unchanged. Furthermore, this is generalizable to other private organizations - charities, fraternal organizations, Sunday leagues, D&D groups, etc. The purpose of most political engineering is to improve private life, not party politics. Be creative with it!

Why Bother?

This all sounds… well, both hard to do and fuzzy to see. Who wants to blaze trails when we can just muddle through as usual, or leave the discoveries to others? There are reasons, though, beyond greed or thymos, why you should consciously develop a practice of political engineering. The first is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a universal means. Pretty much any long-term goal you desire is made easier to reach by being able to better deal with people and create/navigate social structures. It’s precisely because political engineering is so universal that it’s not understood explicitly in a world of specialized disciplines. You will never hold a position with “political engineer” in the title, but the skills and outlook I describe will help you with whatever station in life you occupy - and, in so in, benefit those around you.

There is also a more philosophical reason to put down the books and pick up the metaphorical wrench. Political engineering as I’ve defined it is a skilled practice, in the sense Matthew Crawford uses the term. By connecting practice and theory, it creates individual meaning through engagement with reality. Furthermore, skilled practice requires a community of practitioners, who teach, evaluate, and appreciate the craft in question. Because the concerns of political engineering are present in every institution or organization, to a greater or lesser extent, it becomes a practice in which we can always engage, and whose community of practitioners knows no inherent limits. In that respect, political engineering is one of the most choiceworthy practices. Even for those who are not drawn to it, it offers the opportunity to improve whichever community of practitioners you’ve joined, by spreading knowledge, resolving conflict, and harmonizing methods. It’s simply a way of making explicit something we all want to do, but don’t consistently articulate. Ultimately, the doctrine of political engineering boils down to this: consider the social world around you reasonably and systematically, then use that knowledge to find appropriate means to reach worthy ends. It’s harder than it sounds but, also, much easier.