My long post from a couple of months ago on James Scott’s Seeing Like a State and Brad DeLong’s review of it enjoyed a temporary revival when Brad republished it in his ‘DeLong Smackdown’ series. But I got a bit of grief from one reader, who thought that I had given Scott far too easy a ride. Which is probably true – while I admire the book, I do have many disagreements with it, which I would have gotten into if I had been reviewing the book proper, rather than arguing against Brad’s interpretation. One such disagreement popped up when I was reading it again for class a couple of weeks ago, together with John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power.1
In one of the early chapters of Seeing Like a State, Scott gives us a Foucauldian view of how formal knowledge increases the power of the state.
Legibility implies a viewer whose place is central and whose vision is synoptic. State simplifications of the kind we have examined are designed to provide authorities with a schematic view of their society, a view not afforded to those without authority. Rather like U.S. highway patrolmen wearing mirrored sunglasses, the authorities enjoy a quasi-monopolistic picture of selected aspects of the whole society. This privileged vantage point is typical of all institutional settings where command and control of complex human activities is paramount. The monastery, the barracks, the factory floor, and the administrative bureaucracy (private or public) exercise many statelike functions and often mimic its information structure as well. (Scott, p. 79)
NB that this isn’t one of the later chapters that deals with the specific phenomenon of ‘high modernism’ – as I read it, this is a generalized claim about how increases in legibility enhance the power of the state (or of whoever the eye-in-the-pyramid/dude at the center of the Panopticon) is. But it’s also wrong. There’s no necessary reason to believe that legibility implies a central viewer with a synoptic vision, or that it enhances the power of those with authority vis-a-vis those who don’t have it, or at least, if there is, Scott doesn’t tell us what it is. Rather, he assumes it. And here, John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power, an account of the development of the British state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is very helpful in illustrating the things that Seeing Like a State doesn’t see.
Brewer’s account doesn’t completely undermine Scott’s. After all, Brewer’s main theme is the importance of state fiscal institutions to Britain’s power capabilities over the relevant period. The British excise office had extraordinary powers of inspection and control – chandlers and soapmakers couldn’t “legally ply their trade without first being inspected by the [excise] officer who kept their vats, moulds and utensils under lock and key.”(Brewer, p.215). The government was also the most important actor by far gathering quantitative information. Manufacturers tried to stop the government from taxing their commodities by withholding details of how they were produced; the leather trade for example did this to stop any leather duty being imposed until 1697, when a rogue London leather dealer helped the excise service devise a new tax, and found himself driven out of business for his efforts. All of this is what Scott would predict – the state seeking to create quantifiable and systematizable information, and affected social parties trying to stop it.
But what Scott’s argument doesn’t capture is that quantifiable information constrains the state as well as enabling it. Brewer describes how lobbyists created a new public sphere, using statistics to argue for their own particular notions of the public good. As government departments could usually produce statistics to support proposed measures, lobbyists started to gather their own statistics, drawing not only on their own sources, but on governmental statistics too. Wire drawers, for example, argued for the repeal of the gold and silver duty by drawing on poor law statistics. Initially, lobbyists relied on private contacts within government for this information; later, they began more and more to use parliament. Thus, it was precisely the creation of a government statistics, together with the broader creation of a mathematically literate sphere of public debate (which itself was shaped in important ways by the state) that allowed private actors to universalize their specific interests and to argue against further state intrusion.
Dealing with the state became one important way in which specifically defined groups sought to gain advantages over their rivals. There was … no homogeneous business interest. There were commercial and industrial interests whose very variety owed much to the government’s imposition of a complex system of regulation. The state’s intrusion upon civil society created sophisticated ‘interests’ whose political conduct was, in turn, informed by the open and accountable political system in which they operated.(Brewer, p.249)
Brewer’s lesson, then, is that the politics of legibility are much more complicated than Scott’s focus on state and hierarchy might suggest. Sometimes, formal knowledge will indeed enhance the power of the central observer, the authority gazing down on its society. But there is no necessary reason why this should be so. Sometimes legibility serves to constrain those central observers, and to increase the power of those at the periphery, by providing them with potent arguments that they can bring to a broader public sphere. Clearly, the existence of such a public sphere is a necessary condition for the benign uses of legibility. But in Brewer’s account, the actions of the state, in part unwittingly, gave rise to the creation of such a public sphere. Brewer implies that the invention of the English public sphere may have had as much to do with excise officials teaching trigonometry to local children as with arguments in coffee houses. As noted, this doesn’t mean that Scott is entirely wrong; far from it. But it does mean that his book should be read against other historical accounts to provide a proper picture of what is actually going on.
1 I assigned the books in the first week of my IR class – I wanted the students to get some sense of where states actually came from and how their fiscal powers got established. If anyone’s interested, the syllabus is available here.