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Sunday, March 29, 2015
We are all modernisers today. We have no idea what being modern means. But we are sure that it guarantees us a future.
For nineteenth-century Positivists, modernity meant a new version of medievalism - a hierarchical technocracy in which science replaced religion; for Marx and the Webbs it meant an economy without markets or private property; for Francis Fukuyama, it meant a worldwide free market and universal liberal democracy. Each of these quite different visions has been seen as the very essence of modernity. All have proved to be fantasies.
We think of modernity as an idea in the social sciences, when actually it is the last hiding place of the idea of 'morality'. Believers in modernity are convinced that - natural disasters apart - history is on the side of Enlightenment values. After all, that is what being modern means, is it not?
In fact, there are many ways of being modern, and many of failing to be. It is not for nothing that a number of the Expressionists were among Nazism's early supporters, or that Oswald Mosley gave press interviews seated behind a black steel Futurist desk. The Nazis were committed to a revolutionary transformation of European life. For them becoming modern meant racial conquest and genocide. Any society that systematically uses science and technology to achieve its goals is modern. Death camps are as modern as laser surgery.
A feature of the idea of modernity is that the future of mankind is always taken to be secular. Nothing in history has ever supported this strange notion. Secularisation has occurred in a few European countries such as England, Sweden and Italy. There is no sign of it in the United States. Among Islamic countries, only Turkey has a well-entrenched secular state; in most others fundamentalism is on the rise. In India, Hindu nationalism has eroded the secular state. In China and Japan, where die Judaeo-Christian and Islamic idea of religion has never been accepted, secularism is practically meaningless. Despite these facts, twenty-first-century modernisers talk in the dated accents of Marx and the Positivists, nineteenth-century Europeans who mistook their parochial hopes for universal historical laws.
Theories of modernisation are cod-scientific projections of Enlightenment values. They tell us nothing about the future. But they do help us to understand the present. They show the lingering power of the Christian faith that history is a moral drama, a tale of progress or redemption, in which - despite everything we know of it - morality rules the world.
John Gray, Straw Dogs pp 173-174
It is far easier for would-be reformers to change the formal structure of an institution than to change its practices. Redesigning the lines and boxes in an organizational chart is simpler than changing how that organization in fact operates. Changing the rules and regulations is simpler than eliciting behavior that conforms to them. Redesigning the physical layout of a village is simpler than transforming its social and productive life. For obvious reasons, political elites—particularly authoritarian high-modernist elites—typically begin with changes in the formal structure and rules. Such legal and statutory changes are the most accessible and the easiest to rearrange.
Anyone who has worked in a formal organization—even a small one strictly governed by detailed rules—knows that handbooks and written guidelines fail utterly in explaining how the institution goes successfully about its work. Accounting for its smooth operation are nearly endless and shifting sets of implicit understandings, tacit coordinations, and practical mutualities that could never be successfully captured in a written code. This ubiquitous social fact is useful to employees and labor unions. The premise behind what are tellingly called work-to-rule strikes is a case in point. When Parisian taxi drivers want to press a point on the municipal authorities about regulations or fees, they sometimes launch a work-to-rule strike. It consists merely in following meticulously all the regulations in the Code routier and thereby bringing traffic throughout central Paris to a grinding halt. The drivers thus take tactical advantage of the fact that the circulation of traffic is possible only because drivers have mastered a set of practices that have evolved outside, and often in contravention, of the formal rules.
Any attempt to completely plan a village, a city, or, for that matter. A language is certain to run afoul of the same social reality. A village, city, or language is the jointly created, partly unintended product of many, many hands. To the degree that authorities insist on replacing this ineffably complex web of activity with formal rules and regulations, they are certain to disrupt the web in ways that they cannot possibly foresee. This point is most frequently made by such proponents of laissez-faire as Friedrich Hayek, who are fond of pointing out that a command economy, however sophisticated and legible, cannot begin to replace the myriad, rapid, mutual adjustments of functioning markets and the price system. In this context, however, the point applies in important ways to the even more complex patterns of social interaction with the material environment that we call a city or a village. Cities with a long history may be called "deep" or "thick" cities in the sense that they are the historical product of a vast number of people from all stations (including officialdom) who are long gone. It is possible, of course, to build a new city or a new village, but it will be a "thin or "shallow" city, and its residents will have to begin (perhaps from known repertoires) to make it work in spite of the rules. In cases like Brasilia or Tanzania's planned villages, one can understand why state planners may prefer a freshly cleared site and a "shocked" population moved abruptly to the new setting in which the planners' influence is maximized. The alternative is to reform in situ an existing, functioning community that has more social resources for resisting and refashioning the transformation planned for it.
The thinness of artificially designed communities can be compared to the thinness of artificially designed languages. Communities planned at a single stroke—Brasilia or the planned village in Tanzania or Ethiopia—are to older, unplanned communities as Esperanto is to say, English or Burmese. One can in fact design a new language that in many respects is more logical, simpler, more universal and less irregular and that would technically lend itself to more clarity and precision. This was, of course, precisely the objective of Esperanto's inventor, Lazar Zamenhof, who also imagined that Esperanto, which was also known as international language, would eliminate the parochial nationalisms of Europe. Yet it is also perfectly obvious why Esperanto, which lacked a powerful state to enforce its adoption, failed to replace the existing vernaculars or dialects of Europe. (As social linguists are fond of saying, "A national language is a dialect with an army,") It was an exceptionally thin language, without any of the resonances, connotations, ready metaphors, literature, oral history, idioms, and traditions of practical use that any socially embedded language already had. Esperanto has survived as a kind of Utopian curiosity, a very thin dialect spoken by a handful of intelligentsia who have kept its promise alive.
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State pp. 255-257
Posted by escapefromwisconsin at 1:57 PM
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