Capitalism and bureaucratic modernism

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functioning social order. 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.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, via Isegoria.

If the informal processes aren’t intuitively obvious to most of the bell curve, they will have to be passed down. If enough new people come into the same place at the same time, the processes are unlikely to be passed down, or even to survive — as happened in Usenet’s eternal September. The same thing applies if there’s no need to learn those processes — why put in the effort if there’s no payoff?

What sorts of informal processes animate a city or a village?

Some of these processes are negatively affected by increases in diversity, as Robert Putnam has shown. And they would be: one process is the existence of homogeneity itself. Thedish homogeneity increases both the ability to coordinate and the likelihood of coordination: ability because less inferential distance, more similar cognitive styles, and greater ability to mentally model others, and likelihood because it fosters a sense that “we’re all in this together”, whereas thedish diversity gives rise to competing factions, a principle demonstrated most vividly by the well-known but rarely-considered phenomenon of the ethnic gang war.

Scott compares capitalism to the high-modernist bureaucratic-totalitarian states of the last century:

Large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety. (In Enlightenment’s Wake, John Gray makes a similar case for liberalism, which he regards as self-limiting because it rests on cultural and institutional capital that it is bound to undermine.) The “interruption,” forced by widespread strikes, of France’s structural adjustments to accommodate a common European currency is perhaps a straw in the wind. Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.

The high-modernist states often saw community and civil society as threats to their power: consider the Communists’ attacks on the churches, networks of hidden informants and spies, and attempts to incorporate all of civil society into the state in order to control and monitor it.


4 responses to “Capitalism and bureaucratic modernism

  1. Pingback: Capitalism and bureaucratic modernism | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Chaos Patch (#31)

  3. Hurlock October 12, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    That’s funny, the capitalist economy is exactly what I was thinking of when Scott was discussing informal processes and the properly functioning social order.

    “Scott compares capitalism to the high-modernist bureaucratic-totalitarian states of the last century:”

    The fact that he is even attempting to make such a comparison means he misunderstands both bureaucratic-totalitarianism and capitalism.
    In his defense though, the so-called modern ‘global capitalism’ does resemble bureaucratic-totalitarianism quite a lot. But that’s the thing, insofar it does, it is hardly capitalism at all. Hasn’t it become blatantly obvious by now that ‘global capitalism’ as it is used everywhere today is a term developed entirely by the Cathedral?

    “in markets, money talks, not people”
    This is just bad economics. And bad sociology. Money cannot talk. People however, can talk through money. That’s what the price system is. That’s how you have a division of labor, that’s how you have an economy.
    When do people have the freedom to talk? When you give them the right to vote? Please.

    “A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity ”
    Pure nonsense. I guess it depends on what he means by ‘quality’, but stated like that it doesn’t make sense at all.

    Also, I always hate it when people don’t clearly define their terms.
    What is meant by standartization and homogenization here? How exactly does capitalism foster that? Capitalism and free global trade does exactly the opposite. It develops the division of labor even further, thus leading to even deeper specialization across different regions; how does this lead to homogenization? Yes it does make the world more interconnected, but that is something else entirely. It is exactly protectionism and restrictions on global trade that lead to greater standartization and homogenization accross different regions because without free trade, or with significant barriers on free trade, different regions cannot specialize and develop the products and services unique to their particular circumstances to the same extent as they would be under free trade.

    • nydwracu October 13, 2014 at 9:39 pm

      In his defense though, the so-called modern ‘global capitalism’ does resemble bureaucratic-totalitarianism quite a lot. But that’s the thing, insofar it does, it is hardly capitalism at all.

      Are you disagreeing with the content or the form of the assertion?

      There’s not enough content in the localist cant for me to be able to say anything about that, but the present system, whatever you want to call it, is a force for at least demographic homogenization. It’s not just Brahmins who want to Goatse all the West’s borders.

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