Moving throughout points in human history -but mainly focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries- author James Scott takes the reader through multiple case studies of governments and individuals’ pursuit of a centrally controlled society. Authoritarian countries such as the Soviet Union both before and during the cold war as well as imperialist Germany during World War I are giving special attention due to their capacity and history of leading grand social experiments: significantly altering the regular flow of life for their citizens in the aim of increasing productivity and improving their “end condition”.
How the state or state planner defines the end condition varies in each instance, with no two countries having the exact same rationale, however the means they take to achieve their goals are noticeably similar. Typically, the state will create a hierarchy of administrative importance, with the most important city, the capital city, holding all the primary functions of the central government; from this focus point it follows that the rest of the state will rally behind this central point in terms of policy and new production targets.
This is a process that requires an increasing amount of information on the part of the state: information about the demographics of a state’s population, as well as quantitative information about general living conditions. Scott states that in the days before the ready availability of mass communication and information technologies, governments struggled with establishing methods of information collection.
For instance, Monarchial France and England made multiple efforts to conduct complete surveys in the hopes of collecting more information about crop yields, and streamline their inefficient taxation systems. However, each country faced significant opposition to these measures from both the peasantry as well as the local nobles, both for the same reason: greater amounts of information means larger taxes and further state control. It was, as Scott argues, the existence of a resilient civil society that prevented the central government from ever enacting its grand surveying plans.
Scott also cites the progression of state-wide usage of last/family names as a means of illustrating the limitations of a state with incomplete information and inefficient methods of enforcing systems onto local communities with an existing administrative system. Eventually, as decades passed and the states grew in their capacity to extend their reach, more and more individuals began to make use of their last names; each individual had an incentive to participate in the new system as the increasingly potent governments threatened to double tax individuals who resided outside of their recorded system.
This transition was gradual and took generations over changing political landscapes to be fully cemented, and even then Scott implies that much of the shift was a homegrown-led effort, which would mean the most the state could be attributed with is the initial push that spurred on the generations to come. Although Scott makes the interesting point that no country is immune to lure of central planning, due to its promises of rapid and sustained development managed through simplified models -developed by experts in their field.
Especially for countries that have a high number of agrarian-based citizens, reliance on a fast-acting technical solution may be seem like a more viable option than deferring to a potentially misinformed populace. tha addition, the presence proactive, participatory formal institution Ultimately, in hindsight, the practical outcomes of historical social experiments like Soviet collectivization or Tanzanian village relocation seem like issues that could have been easily avoided through a simple application of common sense; it would have been easy for Scott to make the case that the central planning from high modernism simply produces bad utcomes because of its inherent flaws -a pretty concept in theory that can never really be applied in reality.
Instead of simply focusing on the outcomes of these social experiments, Scott makes a concerted effort to decode the logic that went behind making these plans into a disastrous reality. One of the recurring themes that pop up throughout the book is that high modernism, more often than not, originates from a good place. The technical experts (engineers, city planners, etc. ) initially observe the living conditions of the major cities and their corresponding statistics.
And more often than not, the city does indeed exhibit significant problems in multiple areas: whether that be in crime, productivity, or severe income disparity; the problems these cities possess have existed for decades without any real solution coming from the policy makers above. As these conditions continue or even worsen, the local citizenry gradually grows more and more discontent-eventually boiling over into public demonstrations or even civil insurrection. Obviously, violence yields mainly negative outcomes for all parties involved, and it should be avoided in the interest of preserving the overall utility of said parties.
Scott cites this fear of potential chaos as a main motivator for central planners like Le Corbustier to cut out what is perceived almost as weeds. In their eyes, the best possible solution to making a city better stems from abiding by single principle -out with the old and in with the new. By their logic a city could not truly embrace the future and flourish in terms of productivity unless it cast aside its past. Ideally, a total, simultaneous removal of the previous social institutions was necessary before any real change could take place.
Reading through the rationale of the high modernist I was reminded by the concept of charter cities proposed by the economist, Paul Romer. He too perceived disorder in many of the third world countries that were underperforming in terms of economic development. Countries like Madagascar or Honduras, which had the resource potential to become an economic success story, but were stymied by weak political and social institutions that did not adequately guard for individual private property rights.
As a result, retooling and optimizing their economies for the new globalized world was regulated to an extremely slow pace. To circumvent this process Romer pushed forward the theory of charter cities -freshly-made cities created off an uninhabited plot of land. By creating a city from scratch in the same vein as high modernists before him, Romer hoped to circumvent long-standing informal institutions that impeded the progress of real economic reform, and create a new set of rules that would be used to essentially build a new society within a society.
What he found, as all high modernist planners are forced to realize when confronted with reality, is that a vocal and widespread opposition from both the lower and upper classes will inevitably speak out against an idea that threatens the integrity of their social informal institutions. In the end, the plans in both countries had to be scrapped as the opposition -successfully linking the concept of charter cities with the reviled concept of colonization- was able to erode political agency.
Romer’s the undeniable error in this line of thinking is clear: trying to have the formal institution control the informal intuitions is like trying to put your hands around a flowing stream, and expecting everything to be captured. In reality, central planning in its essence can only capture an insignificantly small portion of that stream while the rest of it flows right on by. The highlight of the reading came from Scott’s cross analysis of proponents and opponents of central planning, using the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions as the background.
Both sides were staunch socialists who fundamentally believed that the old order of capitalism was inflicting horrific damage on the working class, and needed to be overhauled immediately. The divergence between the socialists came about from trying to determine the main vehicle of revolutionary movements: was it the creative individuality of the working masses or did a social revolution requires an elite, centralized body that could direct the working class towards specific goals? For Lenin and Trotsky, upporters of an elite, professional revolutionary body, only strict order and discipline could keep the cause pure while moving the party towards victory over the standing regime. On the other hand, detractors like Rosa Luxemburg and Aleksandra Kollontai believed while a central body of elites had its place in the movement, its sole role should be the nominal guidance of the overall working class: allowing the masses to work towards their ideal form of communism on local and regional levels, rather than dictating terms from the top down.
Unfortunately, the centralists won the day in the Soviet Union, and the populace was subjugated to a strict, state interpretation of what communism was to be. In the short-run, the Soviet Union was able to make significant gains in terms of industry, military strength, and global prestige, but at the expense of the strength of its civil society -an issue that was only magnified when Stalin succeeded Lenin, and implemented a series of brutal purges that led to what Scott classified as a perfect set-up to the worst possible outcome of High Modernist thought.
Collectivization of agricultural fields meant that individual rights were sidelined for overall productivity; designers aimed for simplicity in grouping these agricultural lands, and foresaw an increase in productivity that warranted relegating individuals as mere numbers.
Reducing people into numbers is what allowed the authoritarian government to weather out the proceeding famines, which resulted in the deaths of millions; the policy makers in the politburo, and more specifically Stalin never had to worry about anyone they cared about starving, so waiting out the worst periods of their plans was a lot easier than it would have been if the Soviets had a system of government that held the officials accountable.
High modernism characterizes the intricate preexisting institutions of a society as backwards and stagnant. This clearly ignores the subtle facets of life that cannot be encaptured in a official laws or codes; Scott points to western common law, which demonstrates a system of rules that covers enough areas of how individuals should live and organize their lives, but leaves enough room for the law to be compatible with the ever moving force of time. Most modern states are younger than the societies they seek to rule over and transform.
Societies are the final result of hundreds if not thousands of years of progress; even in the case of the colonized Americas the comparatively fewer centuries of their written history still possesses a rich amount social norms and rules specific to regional areas that would be nearly impossible for a lawmaker to codify entirely. The central planning that follows from high modernism requires an authoritarian regime in order for implementation to be fully attempted.
Even then, there are no recoreded examples of such a plan being fully and successfully carried out at any point in history; the Soviet Union and China adopted certain aspects from it, but the former has collapsed while the latter has opted for a quasi-free market solution. It is therefore extremely unlikely that long-term development can follow an authoritarian government run and administered by technocrats convinced that their plan is the one true answer to developing the underdeveloped.