Institutional Blindness, Weapons of the Weak, and Highlanders

A few words about two books by Political Scientist James C. Scott.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009

“Nomads and pastoralists…hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states,” begins Scott (1). Primitive premodern states, he continues, had great difficulty “seeing” their people, and this interfered with “the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion” (2). Some less primitive premodern states, such as the Egyptians and the Incas, had some success seeing their people, as shown by the pyramids and the Mita labor system. But it’s probably fair to say that increasing “civilization” leads to increased “visibility.” Efforts to render populations more “legible” included “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the invention of freehold tenure…language and legal discourse.” Interesting to think of freehold land ownership--the very centerpiece of America's yeoman Free Soil idealism--as a process that allows states to keep closer tabs on their citizens. These “simplification” practices of early modern states, Scott says, paved the way for “huge development fiascoes” of the modern era like China’s Great Leap Forward. (which killed at least 45 million people, 3)

These modern-day state disasters, Scott says, rest on four elements: 1.) the administrative ordering of nature and society, 2.) a high-modernist ideology that puts undue confidence in technicians’ ability to reorganize the world through top-down planning, 3.) an authoritarian state that can enforce the technicians’ plans, and 4.) a prostrate population that cannot resist these plans (4,5). I wonder what it would look like if someone wrote an American Environmental History survey course based on these principles? I don't think I'll go quite that far, but I do think I'll build this into the next syllabus I use for my course.

“Designed or planned social order,” Scott reminds us, “is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order." Scott doesn’t really specify whether this ignorance is natural (the map always fails to faithfully represent the territory) or deliberate (malcontents are left out so they can be dealt with). The failure of the schematic, Scott says, 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.” It’s the unacknowledged, unpaid, invisible contributions of the workers, creatively fixing problems that arise, that actually makes systems work, Scott argues. “By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production” (6).

To support his point, Scott describes early modern forests, modern city-builders, Bolsheviks, African villages, and modern agriculture. Comparing modern monoculture to shifting and polycultural farming styles, Scott calls attention to the difference between experimental findings and real-world results. He describes the “Blind Spots,” “Weak Peripheral Vision,” and “Shortsightedness” of industrial agriculture, as well as the fact that “Some Yields are More Equal than Others” (290-306). Again, the problem is that we’re seeing, talking about, and making policy based on maps and mental schematics, and the experimental answers to narrowly-framed questions, rather than on what’s really happening on the ground.

The missing link, Scott says, is local, practical knowledge, which he calls “MÄ“tis” (309). Interestingly, Scott says that many early technocrats, including Frederick Taylor (founder of the Efficiency Movement and author of
The Principles of Scientific Management), were aware that “under scientific management…the managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen…” (Taylor, quoted in Marglin, Dominating Knowledge, 336). The objective, from the manager’s perspective, is to eliminate the possibility of a work-to-rule strike by owning all the knowledge. This idea has interesting implications for contemporary intellectual property theory.

The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott continues the story of organizations and their discontents, from the perspective of the “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare” (ix). “Civilizational discourses,” Scott points out, “never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the barbarians,” and often even have difficulty understanding why the outsiders on the hilltops resist the civilizing influences of the valley cities. And of course, most of our Histories come from these valley civilizations.

This has interesting resonance in Early America, where English colonists had a continuing problem with people from the lower end of the social order running off to live with the Indians. And I've just been listening to the audiobook version of Mann's
1493, which is full of descriptions of Maroon communities hidden in the hills--often until really recently (more on that soon). The region Scott looks at in this book is called the Zomia, which is a new name for all the territory located more than 300 meters above sea level in Southeast Asia. It covers 2.5 million square kilometers and includes about 100 million people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The common feature of all these hill people is that they are relatively out-of-reach of the nation-states that nominally include them in their territories. And that the authorities of these nation-states consider them upland barbarians.

But “the valley imagination” of the authorities that considers these highlanders premodern, Scott says, “has its history wrong. Hill people are not pre-anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedentary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue durée, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp” (337). In other words, a sort-of global, off-the-grid rebel population, that tries to live on its own terms by going far away from the centers of power. Whether these “post-civilization” hill people will be more resilient, if anything goes catastrophically wrong with the civilizations at the center, may be the big question lurking behind Scott’s stories.