Posts Tagged ‘Authoritarian High Modernism’

James C. Scott on Seeing Like a State

July 30, 2013

I’ve posted a lot about dysfunctional organizations, both governmental and corporate.  I recently finished reading a brilliant book, SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, which shows that the things that bother me are not aberrations caused by the Bush and Obama administrations or by current corporate management, but are part of a long historical process.

seeinglikeastateThe author, James C. Scott’s, described how our institutions and ways of thinking evolved to give  rulers the means to monitor their subjects in order to control them.

Not many centuries ago, most people didn’t have surnames and given names, just local nicknames.  In the little town I grew up in, most people were better known by their nicknames than the names than the names on their birth certificates.  This may have been confusing to outsiders, but we knew who we were.

In order for individuals to be taxed and conscripted into military service, it is necessary for the ruler to know who they are.  That is why everyone must have a name that is a unique (for all practical purposes) identifier and, nowadays, an identification number as well.

Odd as it may now seem, there was a time when governments did not have records of everybody’s address (not every location had an address), marital status, criminal record and employment history.   People did not carry identification papers and were not required to show them.

But governments want their subjects to be visible, and over time this process accelerates.  There are benefits to this, of course.  But the more that governments have on file about us individually, the harder it is to escape the web of control.  The  culmination of the process Scott describes is the National Security Agency’s goal of having a data base that includes every human being on the planet.

Administrators’ growing knowledge leads to the pitfalls of what Scott called Authoritarian High Modernism (which Nassim Nicolas Taleb called the Soviet-Harvard illusion)—the application of  theory without a reality check.