Tag Archives: James C. Scott

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.

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