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The Well-Tempered Anarchist

Why decentralized problem-solving beats technocracy
Illustration by Miguel Davilla

James C. Scott is a political scientist, anthropologist, and co-director of the agrarian studies program at Yale University. His most notable previous work was Seeing Like a State, which deftly described the consequences of the drive towards standardization, homogeneity, and quantifiable (and thus measurable) standards of efficiency produced by the rise of the bureaucratic nation-state from the 1500s onward.

This volume is distilled from a course on anarchism that Scott taught 20 years ago and comprises six essays centered around a theme, rather than a single, sustained argument. An idealist who believed in revolutionary change in the 1960s, Scott became disillusioned when he realized that “virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew… able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very population it was designed to serve.” He came to appreciate the anarchist critique of these revolutions, and many other anarchist “squints” on things as well, but could not buy the total program: “I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan… and the challenge is to tame it.”

Even here Scott is no starry-eyed optimist, as he adds: “That challenge may well be beyond our reach.” And so we see a former radical and current appreciator of anarchism reaching the essential conservative insight that reality may severely constrain our ability to realize our imaginings.

In the first chapter, “The Uses of Disorder and ‘Charisma,’” Scott presents one of his more problematic ideas. It is introduced by the story of his seeing German pedestrians habitually failing to cross an intersection against the light, despite the road being empty of traffic. He argues that the Germans could stand some practice at law-breaking, which would help avoid any possible repeat of the 1930s and ’40s. Well, certainly it is good to have the spine to break manifestly unjust laws. But Scott goes much further than that, suggesting that “every day or so” we should “break some law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking,” in what Scott calls “anarchist calisthenics.”

This attitude could, I think, easily lead to contempt for the law, and needs to be balanced by a healthy, Socratic respect for the value of the rule of law for social life. (To Scott’s credit, he does admit that deciding when to engage in such calisthenics requires “careful thought.”)

While giving two cheers for anarchism, Scott is not particularly well disposed towards right-wing libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. He pointedly notes: “The last strand of anarchist thought I definitely wish to distance myself from is the sort of libertarianism that tolerates (or even encourages) great differences in wealth, property, and status.” Contrary to the atomic individualism that underlies much contemporary “free market” political economy, Scott insists that individuals are significantly shaped by the framework of social institutions in which they conduct their lives. Human beings were never the atomic individuals of neoclassical economics, but its hegemony is making them more and more resemble its assumptions about them:

Further, the neoliberal celebration of the individual maximizer over society, of individual freehold property over common property, of the treatment of land (nature) and labor (human work life) as market commodities, and… cost-benefit analysis (e.g. shadow pricing for the value of a sunset or an endangered view) all encourage habits of social calculation that smack of social Darwinism.

In the next chapter, “Vernacular Order, Official Order,” Scott revisits a theme he explored to great effect in Seeing Like a State: “The people” are attuned to a local, “vernacular” context and vocabulary that require intimate knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. For instance, the people of Durham, Connecticut call a certain road “Guilford Road” because that is where it takes them. But the residents of Guilford call the same highway “Durham Road.” The state, on the other hand, operating as it were from on high, has a difficult time with such subtleties and so slaps on a label that fits the street into a larger, abstract scheme covering all of Connecticut, and so it becomes “Route 77.”

Taking such an aerial view can make sense at times, but it can also be destructive, as in the case of modernist urban planning, where Scott evokes the great urbanist Jane Jacobs:

One sees in the newspapers photographs from beaming city officials and architects looking down on the successful model as if they were in helicopters, or gods. What is astounding, from a vernacular perspective, is that no one ever experiences the city from that height or angle. The presumptive ground-level experience of real pedestrians—window-shoppers, errand-runners, aimlessly strolling lovers—is left entirely out of the urban-planning equation.

Scott is suspicious of impersonal, rationalist plans and institutions in general, not just those forwarded by the state. For instance, “scientific” forestry—the practice of planting “forests” in large monocrops of a single age—is another of his targets. Now, certainly states have been involved in that practice but so have large private firms. At first the practice seemed beneficial: the result was large tracts of trees that could be easily managed and harvested efficiently with predictable yields. But after a century, extremely low biodiversity and very high susceptibility to pests and diseases made these places famous not for their efficiency but for “forest death.”

In another, frightening tale of private but impersonal institutions, he describes searching for a nice convalescent home for his two aunts. He hears good things from all of the residents of each home he visits, until he happens to be left alone with one for a moment. Then she hurriedly tells Scott that her home is horrible but she was afraid to say so in the presence of the staff because they punished residents for any complaining—by, for instance, neglecting to bathe them. Scott realized he was witnessing a “regime of low-level terror.” From that point on, he tried to see residents at other homes with no staff present, but three out of the four institutions he visited refused his request.

Continuing the same theme, Scott’s case for local shops is such a good enumeration of the many ways in which they are superior to the giant chain stores that it is worth quoting at length:

It is surely the case that ‘big box’ stores can, owing again to their clout as buyers, deliver a host of manufactured goods at a cheaper price than the petty bourgeoisie. What is not so clear, however, is whether, once one has factored in all the public goods… the petty bourgeoisie provides—informal social work, public safety, the aesthetic pleasures of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, informal neighborhood news and gossip, a building block of social solidarity and public action, and (in the case of the smallholding peasantry) good stewardship of the land—the petty bourgeoisie might not be in a full accounting, a far better bargain, in the long run, than the large, impersonal capitalist firm.

In another paean to spontaneous ordering, Scott describes the “shared space” concept of improving traffic flow that has been gaining ground of late, especially in Europe. It turns out that removing traffic lights can make driving, biking, and walking in dense conditions safer, when done properly. Hans Monderman, the pioneer of this concept, did not simply yank the light from the busiest intersection in Drachten, the Netherlands: he replaced it with a traffic circle, a bike path, and a separate pedestrian area. Furthermore, as Scott notes, drivers’ increased alertness in these new situations is “abetted by the law,” which penalizes those it holds responsible for accidents.

Here we glimpse part of the reason for Scott’s two rather than three cheers for anarchism: spontaneous ordering can take care of many things we typically believe require central direction, but the successful examples we see around us tend to rely upon an underlying, state-supplied order.

Scott also takes on the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, which predictably resulted in teachers “teaching to the test” and in fact often falsifying results to meet standards imposed from the top downward. Scott explains the perverse results by invoking “Goodheart’s law [which] holds that ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.’ And Matthew Light clarifies: ‘An authority sets some quantitative standard to measure a particular achievement; those responsible for meeting that standard do so, but not in the way which was intended.’”

At the same time the United States was dumbing down its educational system in this fashion, Scott notes that, ironically, many other nations were doing away with such standardization, with good results, while thinking they were following the American model. He adds another example of the problematic nature of such “one-size-fits-all” measures, that of French kings, who, wishing to tax (presumably wealthier) subjects with larger houses more than those with smaller ones, instituted a tax based on the number of windows and doors a subject’s house had. The result? Houses in France had fewer and fewer windows and doors as time went on, whatever their size.

These cases segue into one of the most interesting claims of this book: the fixation on what is measurable in political decision-making is a way of pretending to be apolitical while actually favoring a certain style of politics—technocratic, elitist, analytical, managerial. For instance, Scott argues, cost-benefit analysis is not a politically neutral way to make decisions, it is a way to make a political decision by deciding what costs count for what and what benefits count for what, while pretending that one is not doing so and attention is being paid to “Just the facts, ma’am.” Often such a fixation has been established with the laudable goal of eliminating discrimination, but the result is perverse: “While fending off charges of bias or favoritism, such techniques… succeeded brilliantly in entrenching a political agenda at the level of procedures and conventions of calculation that is doubly opaque and inaccessible.”

The aspects of Scott’s work that I have been able to examine above, although they don’t do justice to the entire book, demonstrate that the typical left-right axis by which political positions are classified is seriously inadequate to the task of handling a thinker like Scott. His case against big government is going to appeal to libertarians. His demonstrations of the wisdom often contained in traditions and customs will be attractive to conservatives. And his concerns with lessening inequalities of wealth and power will be congenial to progressives. So where does he fit on the left-right axis? Nowhere, I’d say: he is his own man. And, setting aside its many other virtues, that alone makes this a book worth reading.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.



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