China Isn’t Socialist, It’s High Modernist

In today’s New York Times, Ian Johnson reports that

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting…

[The plan] states that “urbanization is modernization” and “urbanization is an inevitable requirement for promoting social progress,” noting that every developed country is urbanized and industrialized.

In certain circles of development studies, it’s become almost cliché to invoke James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have FailedI’m going to do it anyway—because the book is that good, but also because Scott’s framework suggests two important predictions about where China’s process of managed urbanization is headed.

For a quick synopsis of Scott’s masterwork, I’ll turn to a 1998 review of it by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein describes Scott’s book as a study of social engineering, or “selective interventions into complex systems,” and the moral of the story is that these interventions rarely end well.

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

The intellectual core of Scott’s book is a theory of incremental state-building, but its moral core is a set of observations about cases where high modernist ideology and authoritarian states have come together to produce especially disastrous social outcomes.

So what is this ideology? As Scott explains (pp. 89-90), high modernism

is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity… The high-modernist state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.

High modernism was on full display in many of the USSR’s grand developmental schemes, from the agricultural collectivization drives that killed millions to the massive river diversion project that was finally abandoned in 1986. High modernism has also afflicted Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan (here), and those efforts have often foundered in the very ways that Scott’s book anticipates (here).

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. “We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure. The capacity of Chinese civil society to resist these schemes is not great, but it also varies a great deal across issues and locales and appears to be strengthening. We see hints of this resistance and its coming intensification in Johnson’s story:

Separately, state television reported on Sunday night that 4.75 million people living in shantytowns would have their housing improved this year. These areas are often villages that have been swallowed up by cities, and at times have been flashpoints of violence between municipal officials who want to demolish them and residents unwilling to move. It is unclear whether the plan will significantly raise relocation compensation for the residents of these areas.

Now, I can think of at least two ways these predictions might not come true. First, the CPC might not really try to implement this plan, or it might abandon the plan if and when conflict arises. I have a hard time imagining that outcome, though, precisely because the Party has now become so publicly invested in high modernist ideology. The Party’s claim to public authority is now lashed to the idea of it as a benevolent and capable modernizer, so any obvious slackening of that commitment would open the door to conflict over what or who should replace it.

Second, these predictions might not come true because the Chinese Communist Party might succeed where all others have failed. So, has the Chinese Communist Party cracked the code on “how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves”, as Sunstein put it? And has it married that never-before-achieved understanding with an unprecedented capacity for design and implementation? If you don’t say yes to both of those questions, it’s hard to see how this scheme manages to pull off what no other comparable scheme before it has done.

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9 Comments

  1. Grant

     /  March 18, 2014

    Is this an effort to reproduce the outcome from Singapore? If so, is modernist policy more viable in something more limited like a city state than a larger nation?

    Reply
  2. @Grant, or alternatively, in Singapore’s case, is it only possible at the expense and exploitation of incredibly cheap labor that has to be imported, or is willing to be imported, from elsewhere?

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  March 18, 2014

      China’s hardly in short supply of cheap, exploitable, labor. But perhaps we’re looking at Singapore in too brief a view and Singapore also has issues that have yet to be shown.

      In one way this high modernism actually does remind me of Soviet and Chinese Communism. The idea is that an elite politically educated vanguard has to exist to lead the rest of the people. Could be an explanation for some of the less rational cities and highways created in China, ‘modernism for the sake of modernism’ rather than from growing need for those things.

      Reply
  3. lump1

     /  March 22, 2014

    I think that this article is needlessly pessimistic about how much can be accomplished though “high modernist” government action. The ultimate such action was the forced industrialization of the Soviet Union by Lenin and Stalin. It certainly had its share of human catastrophes, but let’s remember that Czarist Russia was not a country of Tolstoys and Tchaikovskys. The majority of Russians were illiterate. In a single (brutal) generation, Russia went from being a backwards rural state to the industrial empire that defeated Hitler and became a global superpower. I doubt profoundly that any of that could have happened within the Tsarist status quo. I don’t pretend that all the actions they took were morally defensible – only that in sum, they worked.

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  March 23, 2014

      The Soviet Union was also lucky, they had a vast amount of resources to work with and they could take whatever they wanted from as far west as East Germany. And we saw what that system ultimately got the Soviet Union, a falling economy and horrible debt that forced them to try to move to a capitalist system.

      Reply
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