04-26-2016 | Macro Scale

Until recently, the ability of the state to impose its schemes on society was limited by the state's modest ambitions and its limited capacity. Although Utopian aspirations to a finely tuned social control can be traced back to Enlightenment thought and to monastic and military practices, the eighteenth-century European state was still largely a machine for extraction. It is true that state officials, particularly under absolutism, had mapped much more of their kingdoms populations, land tenures, production and trade than their predecessors had and that they had become increasingly efficient in pumping revenue, grain, and conscripts from the countryside. But the was more than a little irony in their claim to absolute rule.

They lacked the consistent coercive power, the fine-grained administrative grid, or the detailed knowledge that would have permitted them to undertake more intrusive experiments in social engineering. To give their growing ambitions full rein, they required a far greater hubris, a state machinery that was equal to the task, and a society they could master By the mid-nineteenth century in the West and by the early twentieth century elsewhere, these conditions were being met.

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements. The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level. "High Modernism" seems an appropriate term for this aspiration.

As a faith, it was shared across a large spectrum of political ideologies. Its main carriers and exponents were the avant-garde among engineers, planners, technocrats, high-level administrators, architects, scientists and visionaries. If one were to imagine a pantheon or Hall of Fame of high-modernist figures, it would almost certainly include such names as Henri Comte de Saint-Simon, Le Corbusier, Walther Rathenau, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses, Jean Monnet, the Shah of Iran, David Lilienthal, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Julius Nyerere. They envisioned a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life in order to improve the human condition.

As a conviction, high modernism was not the exclusive property of any political tendency; it had both right- and left-wing variants, as we shall see. The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving those designs. The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. The ideology of high modernism provides, as it were, the desire; the modern state provides the means of acting on that desire; and the incapacitated civil society provides the leveled terrain on which to build dystopias.

...but here it is important to note that many of the great state-sponsored calamities of the twentieth century have been the work of rulers with grandiose and utopian plans for their society. One can identify a high modernist utopianism of the right, of which Nazism is surely the diagnostic example. The massive social engineering under Aparteid in South Africa, the modernization plans of the Shah of Iran, villagization in Vietnam, the huge late-colonial development schemes (for example, the Gezira scheme in the Sudan) could be considered under this rubric. And yet there is no denying that much of this massive, state-enforced social engineering of the twentieth century has been the work of progressive, often revolutionary elites. Why?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that it is typically progressives who come to power with a comprehensive critique of existing society and a popular mandate (at least initially) to transform it. These progressives have wanted to use that power to bring about enormous changes in people's habits, work, living patterns, moral conduct and worldview. They have deployed what Havel has called "the armory of holistic social engineering." Utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous. Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.

- James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State p. 88-89.

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