James C. Scott's grand tome, Seeing Like a State, provides a lengthy but concise report of the processes that enabled our population to explode while evenly weighing the displacement of the traditional peasant for the top-down administration by today's governments. By connecting the simplification of forests to the eradication of slums and the introduction of standardized measurements to the legibility of the economy, Scott paints a crystal-clear picture of the political innovations necessary to fit more people into a given landscape without constant conflict. While much beauty and unique qualities have been lost, by setting the state of society, a transcendent quality has emerged from our numerous population. Scott is not afraid to explain both sides of the project of modernization. Taken in complement to Karl Polanyi's wide study of the origins of modernism from the old feudal order in The Great Transformation, Seeing Like a State offers a broader perspective than just economics on the transformative powers of centralized administration. Generalized statements like, "Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy," connect the high-modernist ideals of Haussmann and Le Corbusier to Jane Jacobs' activism and open the door to links with today's proliferation of cryptography. "The problem was not that Belleville was not a community, but that it became the sort of community which the bourgeoisie feared, which the police could not penetrate, which the government could not regulate, where the popular classes, with all their unruly passions and political resentments, held the upper hand." Django Reinhardt immortalizes Belleville in his classic piece A true anarchist, Scott, bows down to no leader in his laying-bare of the processes of our organization because he believes that greater understanding will bring about improved solutions. Some of his prescriptions are especially haunting in today's ever-increasing surveillance due to the internet: "Subpopulations found wanting in ways that were potentially threatening-such as indigents, vagabonds, the mentally ill, and criminals-might be made the subjects of the most intensive social engineering." Equally gut-wrenching is his coining of the term "social taxidermy" to describe the state's processes replacing authentic relationships with people moving according to their labels. Although Cory Doctorow cribbed much of Walkaway's economical aphorisms from David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, Seeing Like a State also takes aim at the unrelenting score-keeping of the Modern economy: "The appeal of one or another form of productivism across much of the right and center of the political spectrum was largely due to its promise as a technological 'fix' for class struggle." Although contemporary consumer brands like to embellish individuality superficially, their production at mass levels cannot escape the fact that, "Just as it saves a prison trouble and money if all prisoners wear uniforms of the same material, color, and size, every concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost." Seeing Like a State is a grand welcoming ceremony for the post-Modern order that releases diversity and depth back to all creatures. To be continued from chapter 5, "The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis..."
Full notes from the first 5 chapters... The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. They made possible quite discriminating interventions of every kind, such as public-health measures, political surveillance, and relief for the poor. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well. I stress the word "imperialism" here because I am emphatically not making a blanket case against either bureaucratic planning or high-modernist ideology. I am however, making a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how. Scientific forestry was originally developed from about 1765 to 1800, largely in Prussia and Saxony. The administrators' forest cannot be the naturalists' forest. Even if the ecological interactions at play in the forest were known, they would constitute a reality so complex and variegated as to defy easy shorthand description. The intellectual filter necessary to reduce the complexity to manageable dimensions was provided by the state's interest in commercial timber and revenue. [Local measurement practices were nevertheless aiming at] objective accuracy. That impression would be false. Every act of measurement was an act marked by the play of power relations. Kula estimates that the size of the bushel (boisseau) used to collect the main feudal rent (taille) increased by one-third between 1674 and 1716... Without comparable units of measurement, it was difficult if not impossible to monitor markets, to compare regional prices for basic commodities, or to regulate food supplies effectively. The conquerors of our days, peoples or princes, want their empire to possess a unified surface over which the superb eye of power can wander without encountering any inequality which hurts or limits its view. -Benjamin Constant, De l'espirit de conquete The very particularity of local feudal practices and their impenetrability to would-be centralizers helped to underwrite the autonomy of local sphere of power. ...the mass-produced commodity is made by no one in particular and is intended for any purchaser at all. In a sense, the virtue of the mass commodity is its reliable uniformity. The metric system was at once a means of administrative centralization, commercial reform, and cultural progress. As the revolutionary decree read: "The centuries old dream of the masses of only one just measure has come true! The Revolution has given the people the meter." > By standardizing the measurement, the peasant was treated fairly instead of swindled at every point in a transaction -- NOT As Chateaubriand remarked, "Whenever you meet a fellow who, instead of talking arpents, toises, and pieds, refers to hectares, meters, and centimeters, rest assured, the man is a prefect > Only representatives of the state use such uniform, impersonal tools > Moving on to standardize land usage maps Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. > At different times and seasons, a large shared area is used in many ways instead of having strict boundaries over who has access to which land. This tool enables greater population densities. Customary systems of tenure should not be romanticized; they are usually riven with inequalities based on gender, status, and lineage. The mind fairly boggles at the clauses, sub-clauses, and subsub-clauses that would be required to reduce these practices to a set of regulations that an administrator might understand, never mind enforce. And even if the practices could be codified, the resulting code would necessarily sacrifice much of their plasticity and subtle adaptability. That code would in effect freeze a living process. > 'Setting the state' Indeed, the very concept of the modern state presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that is legible and hence manipulatable from the center. Just as the flora of the forest were reduced to Normalbaume, so the complex tenure arrangements of customary practice are reduced to freehold, transferrable title. Ideologically, for example, their commitment to equality and liberty was contradicted by customary rural contracts... The first proposal for a code, which was drafted between 1803 and 1807, would have swept away most traditional rights (such as common pasturage and free passage through others' property) and essentially recast rural property relation in the light of bourgeois property rights and freedom of contract. Two problems undid this charming scheme to present the rural populace with a rural code that simply reflected its own practices. Even in in a particular locality, practices varied greatly from farm to farm and over time; any codification would be partly arbitrary and artificially static. To codify local practices was this a profoundly political act. The collective form of taxation meant this it was generally in the interest of local officials to misrepresent their situation in order to minimize the local tax and conscription burden. To this end, they might minimize the local population, systematically understate the acreage under cultivation, hide new commercial profits, exaggerate crop losses after storms and droughts, and so on. (when "nature" became "natural resources") The history of property in this sense has meant the inexorable incorporation of what were once thought of as free gifts of nature: forest, game, wasteland, prairie, subsurface minerals, water and watercourses, air rights (rights to the air above buildings or surface area), breathable air, and even genetic sequences, into a property regime. Taken alone, it is essentially a geometric representation of the border or frontiers between parcels of land. What lies inside of the parcel is left blank-unspecified-since it is not germane to the map plotting itself. Land maps in general and cadastral maps in particular are designed to make the local situation legible to an outsider. For purely local purposes, a cadastral map was redundant. Although the forester's and cadastral official's range of knowledge is far narrower, we should not forget that their knowledge is systematic and synoptic, allowing them to see and understand things a fox would not grasp. What I want to emphasize here, however, is how this knowledge is gained at the expense of a rather static and myopic view of land tenure. The farmer rarely experiences an average crop, an average rainfall, or an average price for his crops. Much of the long history of rural tax revolts in early modern Europe and elsewhere can be illuminated by the lack of fit between an unyielding fiscal claim, on one hand, and an often wildly fluctuating capacity of the rural population to meet that claim, on the other. Ignoring small jogs and squiggles made their job easier and did not materially affect the outcome. Just as the commercial forester found it convenient to overlook minor forest products, so the cadastral official tended to ignore all but the main commercial use of a field. The shorthand formulas through which tax officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they frequently have the power to transform the facts they take note of. [Villagers] faced powerful new specialists in the form of land clears, surveyors, judges, and lawyers whose rules of procedure and decisions were unfamiliar. Whatever their conduct, their fluency in a language of tenure specifically designed to be legible and transparent to administrators, coupled with the illiteracy of the rural population to whom the new tenure was indecipherable, brought about a momentous shift in power relations. What was simplifying to an official was mystifying to most cultivators. The gulf between land tenure facts on paper and facts on the ground is probably greatest at moments of social turmoil and revolt. We must never assume that local practice conforms with state theory. Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy. On a more speculative note, a far-flung, polyglot empire may find it symbolically useful to have its camps and towns laid out according to formula as a stamp of its order and authority. Other things being equal, the city laid out according to a simple repetitive logic will be easiest to administer and police. It follows, I believe, that such plans, which have the scale of toys, are judged for their sculptural properties and visual order, often from a perspective that no or very few human observers will ever replicate. Although certain state services may be more easily provided and distant addresses more easily located, these apparent advantages may be negated by such perceived disadvantages as the absence of a dense street life, the intrusion of hostile authorities, the loss of spatial irregularities that foster coziness, gathering places for informal recreation, and neighborhood feeling. The fact that such order works for municipal and state authorities in administering the city is no guarantee that it works for citizens. With a T-square and a triangle, finally, the municipal engineer could, without the slightest training as either an architect or a sociologist, 'plan' a metropolis, with its standard lots, its standard blocks, its standard width streets.... The very absence of more specific adaptation to landscape or to human purpose only increased, by its very indefiniteness, its general usefulness for exchange. "The problem was not that Belleville was not a community, but that it became the sort of community which the bourgeoisie feared, which the police could not penetrate, which the government could not regulate, where the popular classes, with all their unruly passions and political resentments, held the upper hand." Treated as a den if revolutionaries, Belleville was subject to a brutal military occupation. The great variety of surnames and given names in the United States allows us to identify unambiguously a large number of individuals whom we may never have met. To the question, "What is your name?" which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is "It depends." For an outsider, however, this byzantine complexity of names is a formidable obstacle to understanding local society. In almost every case it was a state project, designed to allow officials to identify, unambiguously, the majority of its citizens. Tax and tithe rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, and property deeds recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual's identity and linking him or her to a kin group. If something more were required, a second designation could be added, indicating his occupation (in the English case, smith, baker), his geographical location (hill, edgewood), his father's given name, or a personal characteristic (short, strong). These secondary designations were not permanent surnames... For English as well as Tuscan peasants, a census of all adult males could not but appear ominous, if not ruinous. State simplifications can be considered part of an ongoing "project of legibility," a project that is never fully realized. State simplifications have at least five characteristics that deserve emphasis... One arrives, finally, at synoptic facts that are useful to officials: so many thousands of trees in a given size class, so many thousands of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, so many farms in a given size class, so many students whose surnames begin with the letter A, so many people with tuberculosis. ["State simplifications"] are anything but simple-minded, and they are often wielded with great sophistication by officials. ...accuracy is meaningless if the identical procedure cannot reliably be performed elsewhere. I am suggesting that many state activities aim at transforming the population, space, and nature under their jurisdiction in to the closed systems that offer no surprises and that can best be observed and controlled. The dream of an all-embracing order and harmony remained as vivid as ever, and it seemed now closer than ever, more than ever within human reach. It was now up to mortal earthlings to bring it about and to secure its ascendancy. -Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust The state has no monopoly on utilitarian simplifications. What the state does at least aspire to, though, is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The idea that one of the central purposes of the state was the improvement of all the members of society-their health, skills and education, longevity, productivity, morals, and family life-was quite novel. One essential precondition of this transformation was the discovery of society as a reified object that was separate from the state and that could be scientifically described. Subpopulations found wanting in ways that were potentially threatening-such as indigents, vagabonds, the mentally ill, and criminals-might be made the subjects of the most intensive social engineering. An Enlightenment belief in the self-improvement of man became, by degrees, a belief in the perfectibility of social order. Rather than arresting social change, they hoped to design a shape to social life that would minimize the friction of progress. The tendency toward various forms of "social taxidermy" was unavoidable. Discussing high-modernism: Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the the scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside. ...virtually every high-modernist intervention was undertaken in the name of and with the support of citizens seeking help and protection, and, second, that we are all beneficiaries, in countless ways, of these various high-modernist schemes. The appeal of one or another form of productivism across much of the right and center of the political spectrum was largely due to its promise as a technological "fix" for class struggle. The first is the existence and belief in a private sphere of activity in which the state and its agencies may not legitimately interfere. As Foucault put it: unlike absolutism and mercantilism, "political economy announces the unknowability for the sovereign of the totality of economic processes and, as a consequence, the impossibility of an economic sovereignty." Time is a fatal handicap to the baroque conception of the world: its mechanical order makes no allowances for growth, change, adaptation, and creative renewal. -Lewis Mumford, The City in History When several or many purposes must be considered, the variables that the planner must juggle begin to boggle the mind. Discussing Le Corbusier' perception of himself: At the apex of the pyramid, however, is not a capricious autocrat but rather a modern philosopher-kind who applies the truths of scientific understanding for the well-being of all. Technocracy, in this instance, is the belief that the human problem of urban design has a unique solution, which an expert can discover and execute. ...Sergey Eisenstein's film about the peasantry and technology, The General Line... The long-established cities of the West, their traditions, their interest groups, their slow-moving institutions, and their complex legal and regulatory structures could only shackle the dreams of a high-modernist Gulliver. "In Brasilia, there is only house and work" From the perspective of the planners of a utopian city, whose goal is more to change the world than to accommodate it... A city that merely pandered to existing tastes and habits would not be doing its utopian job. Where Le Corbusier began with formal, architectural order from above, Jacobs begins with informal, social order from below. Just as it saves a prison trouble and money if all prisoners wear uniforms of the same material, color, and size, every concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." What keeps Jacobs from becoming a Burkean conservative, celebrating whatever history has thrown up, is her emphasis on change, renewal, and invention. To try to arrest this change (although one might try to modestly influence it) would be not only unwise but futile. We must learn to cherish the communities we have, they are hard to come by. 'Fix the buildings, but leave the people.' 'No relocation outside the neighborhood.' ...the planner cannot create a functioning community, a functioning community can, within limits, improve its own condition. Her answer is simple: "Only an unimaginative man would think he could; only an arrogant man would want to."