Today’s China Is Communist and Modern, Not High Modernist

This rebuttal to my recent post on China is a cross-post from Jeremy Wallace’s blog, Science of Politics, with his permission. You can see the original here. Thanks to a shout-out from Marginal Revolution, my post got a lot of views, and I hope Jeremy’s response will get the same. He’s the expert on China, so his argument has me reconsidering my views.

The Chinese government released its long-awaited urbanization plan (国家新型城镇化规划) on 16 March. Ian Johnson, who has written extensively about China’s urbanization for the New York Times, begins his piece on the announcement of the plan in grand terms:

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.

These descriptions of nondemocratic regime’s releasing “sweeping” plans to reshape their economic geography made Jay Ulfelder think of High Modernism, largely from Jim Scott’sSeeing Like a State. Scott describes significant disasters that have emerged out of failed social engineering projects. Ulfelder quotes from a review of Scott’s excellent book by Cass Sunstein:

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.

In some ways, then, the summary of the plan in the NYT looks like a classical example of High Modernism. As Ulfelder writes,

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.”

Such a characterization leads Ulfelder to two predictions.

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.

I disagree with the assessment of the plan as high modernism and with the causal mechanisms underlying the predictions that arise from it. It isn’t high modernist because China doesn’t “plan” like it used to and the described policies incrementally adjust the status quo. The predictions themselves are not wrong so much as they are already correct.

First, the nature of planning in China has gradually moved away from the intense micro-managing of the eponymous Planned Economy to something much more akin to policies that shape the incentive structure of local governments and individuals by allocating marginal resources more to one locale rather than another. That is, China governs like a modern state, not a high modern one. Even the words used in plans have changed, as pointed out by Philipp C.C. Huang:

If one looks to the evolution in the Chinese terms for planning, we can see that the words have changed first from jihua 计划 and zhilingxing jihua 指令性计划 or “commandist planning” to zhidaoxing jihua 指导性计划 or “guidance planning,” and, more recently, to abandoning the old term jihua completely in favor of guihua 规划, now the commonly used term for what the new National Development and Reform Commission (国家发展和改革委员会), which replaced the old National Planning Commission (国家计划委员会), undertakes.

This semantic change reflects a real reduction in the Party’s control of the day-to-day operations of the economy. This can be seen in the fact that this document is often described as “long-awaited.” It is long-awaited because it was supposed to be announced last year. As Jamil Anderlini of the FT put it,

The urbanisation plan was originally expected to be published more than a year ago, but deep divisions between government departments and dissatisfaction from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who has been a strong champion of the scheme, delayed the plan’s publication until now.

I would argue that this slowly rolled out plans like this one are less likely to be sweeping than those that emerge out of nowhere. Additionally, this dissatisfaction implies that, unlike in China under Mao, local implementation of the plan is unlikely to be anything but grudging. There is a growing literature on local resistance to implementing central dictates in China (e.g., Margaret Pearson and Mei Ciqi have a nice forthcoming paper in China Journal entitled “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: Sanctions, Shared Beliefs and Local Defiance in China” that I can’t find online).

Second, the document is not a radical departure from prior policy. Johnson’s statement “the plan [is] the country’s first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history” fits awkwardly with a history of policies regulating and restricting migration that have existed since 1950s (I might have just finished writing a book about China’s management of urbanization).

The household registration (hukou) system was established when Soviet-style industrialization was initiated to control that true high modernist policy’s unintended consequences, namely blind flows of farmers into cities looking for work and escaping rural taxation. This system of effective migration restrictions has been tinkered with at the national and subnational level countless times during China’s post-Mao Reform Era (1978–). Over the past ten years, such reforms have been constantly trumpeted but implemented reality rarely measures up to the hype of policy announcement. Yet reforms have certainly taken place; Tom Miller’s great China’s Urban Billion summarizes many recent changes well.

The newly released document describes policies that are broadly similar to what we have seen time after time in recent years: continued “strict control” of population growth in the largest cities and encouragement of development of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in the country’s central and western regions. What is different here is a central commitment to assist local government’s fund the infrastructure of their cities and efforts to contain “land urbanization,” where local governments claim rural land from village collectives, pay farmers a pittance, and sell it at a huge profit to developers. The urbanization of land causes the “forced urbanization” of individuals that Ian Johnson’s reporting decries, so attempts to reduce its prevalence going forward should be welcomed.

Why does this plan sound high modernist then? Because it emanates from a Communist Party-led regime that still tends to use language more appropriate to the grand pronouncements of Marxism. It is a Communist state. The regime retains the power to manage the economy and guides it towards in desired directions but in general refrains from stating desired ends.

As for the predictions coming from classifying China as high modernist, the country already is dealing with serious problems of ghost cities where any return on investment is questionable. It is certainly possible that aiding the development of small and medium cities will turn out being wasteful economically, even if it might be savvy politically. In terms of urban instability and violence, I’m sanguine. I see this plan as continuing in a long line of policies that the regime has put forward to try to avoid urban unrest–incorporating slums, expanding access to urban social services, and slowing down land confiscations–are all reasonable levers for the center to use to tamp down the possibilities of protest in cities.

In the end, the Chinese regime speaks with archaic language–that is indeed, occasionally frightening–but acts like a modern state. Today’s CCP leadership certainly prefers to depoliticize and to quantify, to argue that it is pursuing “development,” “progress,” and “modernization” without giving the Chinese people much of a voice to prevent them from doing so. But so do other modern states. China today is far from the catastrophes of its high modern era, namely the Great Leap Forward. Let us all be thankful that this is so.

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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.

Sovereignty Without Territoriality?

The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia… This overwhelming concern for obtaining and holding population at the core is shot through every aspect of precolonial statecraft. What Geertz says about Balinese political rivalries—that they were “a struggle more for men than for land”—could apply equally to all of mainland Southeast Asia. This principle animated the conduct of warfare, which was less a grab for distant territory than a quest for captives who could be resettled at the core… Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies and puzzled by an administration of manpower that had little or nothing to do with territorial jurisdiction… As Thongchai Winichakul’s insightful book shows, the Siamese paid more attention to the manpower they could summon than to sovereignty over land that had no value in the absence of labor.

That’s from Chapter 3 (pp. 64-68) of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. To an inhabitant of the “modern” world who studies international politics, Scott’s description of powerful states that only vaguely demarcated and policed their putative territorial boundaries serves as an intriguing reminder that the fusion of territoriality and political sovereignty we now take for granted is not inevitable. Organizations can and have exercised substantial authority over human society without husbanding exclusive control over specific patches of land. Scott sees similar processes at work in nineteenth– and twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa:

The theme of manpower concentration permeates the literature on indigenous politics: “The drive to acquire relatives, adherents, dependents, retainers, and subjects and to keep them attached to oneself as a kind of social and political ‘capital’ has often been remarked upon as characteristic of African political processes.”… As in Southeast Asia there was little emphasis on sharp territorial boundaries, and the important rights were over people, not places, except for particular ritual sites. The competition for followers, kinsmen, and bondsmen operated at every level.

In fact, I’d say there are at least three interconnected but distinct spaces in which political authority can be organized—physical (territory), social (people), and economic (trade)—and the three don’t necessarily have to hang together. Scott has already described for us states whose sovereignty was rooted primarily in the social and economic realms with less attention to territory.

Contemporary drug cartels arguably exemplify the possibility of organizations that compete for power in trade space without asserting sovereignty over territory or society in the way that modern states do. Large cartels sometimes attempt to establish territorial zones of impunity or even governance, but those efforts often come in response to rivals’ attempts to quash their power in trade space. More important, the point of that territorial control is usually to gain freedom from interference in their economic activities, not to assert the full panoply of political authority we attach to the modern idea of sovereignty. As John Sullivan says of contemporary “criminal insurgencies” in Mexico and elsewhere,

Organized crime groups (gangs and cartels)…usually seek to elude detection and prefer co-opting (corrupting) the instruments of state rather than engaging in direct confrontation… Yet as the current crime wars illustrate, these actors can directly confront the state when their interests are challenged (Bailey & Talyor, 2009).  Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium.

Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities. Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.

It’s harder for me to think of an organization that competes for sovereignty in the social realm without seeking control over territory or trade. I suppose organized religion comes closest. Although some hierarchical religious organizations historically have also pursued control over land and trade, in ideological terms, their main claim attaches to the souls of their adherents and nothing else. Ethnicity might fit the bill, too, insofar as leaders of these communities of putative kinship claim authority over members wherever they may be and whatever trade they might take up. It’s also interesting to think about whether or not cyberspace is emerging as a fourth realm for political organization, intertwined with but at least partially independent of the other three, but that’s a question for another day.

What’s confusing to modern ears, I think, is the application of the word “state” to these other things. Scott explicitly did so, and I’m implicitly doing so here. My point in doing so is to highlight that the constructs we call “states” are just one of many organizations constantly competing for power in these various spaces. What’s unique about the modern state is its explicit claim to dominion over all three of those spaces—physical, social, and economic—within a particular set of sharply demarcated borders.

So, let’s flip it around: instead of calling all of these organizations states, let’s reserve that term for the modern thing, but let’s allow Scott’s passage to remind us that states are neither as inevitable nor as successful in their efforts to establish that dominion as we often assume. Instead, they are just one organizational form competing for sovereignty in these various realms, and their success in those struggles is neither as complete nor as final as they would like it to be. The fusion of sovereignty in the modern state is a specific idea, not a natural fact, and a self-serving one at that.

Legitimacy Revisited…and Still Found Wanting

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that “legitimacy” is a solution to a theoretical puzzle that isn’t really so puzzling.

One of the central concerns of contemporary political science is political development—that is, understanding how and why different systems of government emerge, survive, and change.  Many of the theories we’ve crafted to address this topic start by assuming that those dynamics depend, in no small part, on the consent of the governed. Yes, all states sometimes coerce subjects into obedience, but coercion alone can’t explain why people don’t more often ignore or overthrow governments that fail to make them as happy as they could be. Taxes are costly, there are always some laws we don’t like, and subjects usually outnumber state security forces by a large margin.

Legitimacy is the idea we’ve concocted to fill that space between the amount of cooperation we think we can explain with coercion and the amount of cooperation we actually see. In its contemporary form, legitimacy has two layers. The first and supposedly deeper layer is a moral judgment about the justice of the current form of government; the second, surface layer is an instrumental judgment about the utility that government is providing. If we imagine the relationship between a state and its subjects as a marriage of sorts, we might think of the two layers of legitimacy as answers to two different questions: “Do you deserve my love?” and “What have you done for me lately?”

This two-layered notion of legitimacy is made clearest in contemporary thinking about the origins and survival of democratic regimes. According to Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset in Politics in Developing Countries (p. 9, emphasis mine),

All governments rest on some mixture of coercion and consent, but democracies are unique in the degree to which their stability depends on the consent of a majority of those governed…Democratic stability requires a widespread belief among elites and masses in the legitimacy of the democratic system: that it is the best form of government (or the “least evil”), “that in spite of shortcomings and failures, the existing political institutions are better than any others that might be established,” and hence that the democratic regime is morally entitled to demand obedience—to tax and draft, to make laws and enforce them, even “if necessary, by the use of force.”

Democratic legitimacy derives, when it is most stable and secure, from an intrinsic value commitment rooted in the political culture at all levels of society, but it is also shaped (particularly in the early years of democracy) by the performance of the democratic regime, both economically and politically (through the “maintenance of civil order, personal security, adjudication and arbitration of conflicts, and a minimum of predictability in the making and implementing of decisions”). Historically, the more successful a regime has been in providing what people want, the greater and more deeply rooted tends to be its legitimacy. A long record of successful performance tends to build a large reservoir of legitimacy, enabling the system better to endure crises and challenges.

So, to recap, legitimacy is a common answer to a question about the roots of consent, and this question about consent, in turn, emerges from a particular understanding of the relationship between governments and subjects. We think that forms of government only survive so long as subjects choose to keep cooperating, and we expect that subjects will only choose to keep cooperating as long as their moral beliefs and evaluations of regime performance tell them it is in their interest to do so. The math is a bit fuzzy, but the two layers of legitimacy are basically additive. As long as the sum of the moral and instrumental judgments is above some threshold, people will cooperate.

But what if this underlying model isn’t true? What if people actually don’t scan the world that way and actively choose between cooperation and rebellion on a regular basis? What if most of us are just busy getting on with our lives, operating on something more like autopilot, unconcerned with this world of high politics as long as it doesn’t disrupt our local routines and compel us to attend to it?

The more I read about how we as humans actually think—and the more I reflect on my own lived experience—the more convinced I become that the “active optimizer” assumption on which the puzzle of consent depends is bunk. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 394-395),

Our emotional state is largely determined by what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment. When happily in love, we may feel joy even when caught in traffic, and if grieving, we may remain depressed when watching a funny movie. In normal circumstances, however, we draw pleasure and pain from what is happening at the moment, if we attend to it.

One big reason “we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment” is that we are creatures of habit and routine with limited cognitive resources. Most of the time, most of us don’t have the energy or the impetus to attend to big, hard, abstract questions about the morality of the current form of government, the available alternatives, and ways to get from one to the other. As Kahneman surmises (p. 354),

We normally experience life in the between-subjects mode, in which contrasting alternatives that might change your mind are absent, and of course [what you see is all there is]. As a consequence, the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.

Put all of this together, and it looks like the active assessments of moral and instrumental value on which “legitimacy” supposedly depends are rarely made, and when they are made, they’re highly contingent. We mostly take things as they come and add the stories and meaning when prompted to do so. A lot of what looks like consent is just people going about their local business in a highly path-dependent world. If you ask us questions about various forms of government, we’ll offer answers, but those answers aren’t very reliable indicators of what’s actually guiding our behavior before or after you asked.

Put another way, I’m saying that the survival of political regimes depends not only on coercion and consent, but also, in large part, on inattention and indifference.

I think we find this hard to accept because (when we bother to think about it) we’ve bought the Hobbesian idea that, without a sovereign state, there would be no order. Hobbes’ State of Nature is philosophically useful, but empirically it’s absurd. As James Scott observes (p. 3) in The Art of Not Being Governed,

Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.

Clearly, nation-states aren’t the “natural” condition of the human animal, and they certainly aren’t a prerequisite for cooperation. Instead, they are a specific social technology that has emerged very recently and has so far proven highly effective at organizing coercive power and, in some cases, at helping to solve certain dilemmas of coordination and cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that we need to refer to national political regimes to explain all coordination and cooperation that happens within their territorial boundaries.

The irrelevance of legitimacy is the other side of that coin. We don’t need to refer to states to explain most of the cooperation that occurs among their putative subjects. Likewise, we don’t need a whole lot of consent to explain why those subjects don’t spend more time trying to change the forms of the nation-states they inhabit. We’ve concocted legitimacy to explain why people seemingly choose to go along with governments that don’t meet their expectations, when really most of the time people are just stumbling from immediate task to task, largely indifferent to the state-level politics on which we focus in our theories of regime survival and change. “Legitimacy” is a hypothesis in response to a question predicated on the false belief that we’re routinely more attentive to, and active in, this arena than we really are.

States Are Like the Millennium Falcon

Last week, artist John Powers wrote a wonderful blog post on how the original Star Wars movie pioneered American cinematic representations of a “used future”—that is, “a future with a past.”

The visual program of Star Wars is unique because it was chronologically stratified. Lucas borrowed from real machine age periods to give his cinematic future an immediately recognizable depth of time. We [are] meant to see that the oldest elements of the film, like Obi Wan Kenobi with his Samurai robes, and Darth Vader…were hold-overs from an older order…Luke’s Landspeeder and C3PO stood in for what was clearly an entire machine age…Luke and his rebel cohorts were flying into battle in the Star Wars equivalent of an old WWII surplus.

I’m a fan of Star Wars—well, of the first two and a half movies, anyway—but I’m also a political scientist, and John’s post got me thinking again about how political scientists think about states.

In American political science, the conventional (Modernist) view of states and their origins are embodied in Lucas’ Death Star. Hierarchically organized communities draw up and execute elaborate plans for a system that performs a clear set of functions. Everything in the whole serves a unique purpose, and each component was presumably built just for that purpose. The engineered system is complicated, but it is not complex. The whole is the sum of its modular parts.  Like Le Corbusier’s radiant city as described by James Scott, the ideal Modernist state is “a lyrical marriage between Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the machine.”

death star power trench plans

In fact, states are more the Millennium Falcon. States are not built de novo to fill political vacuums. Instead, like the hot rods Lucas celebrates in American Graffiti, states are motley assemblages of formal and informal institutions cobbled together on the go. Many of those parts were designed at some time for some purpose, but not necessarily the one for which they’re actually being used. Change often occurs at the margins in response to specific problems that are solved imperfectly. Instead of a spacecraft carefully designed to execute of series of specific tasks, we get a mostly functional “hunk of junk.”

Millennium Falcon

The builders of these assemblages are more craftsmen than engineers. They don’t have the luxury of time, the know-how, or the resources to build a new ship from the ground up, so they tinker at the margins as they go and hope the whole thing doesn’t disintegrate out from under them. Not trivially, they also have some attachment to the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the system they’ve cobbled together. Even if they could scrap it for a newer and cleaner model, they probably wouldn’t want to. The Millennium Falcon may be a hunk of junk, but to its pilot, it’s “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

The aesthetic of a “used future” George Lucas pioneered for American moviegoers in Star Wars is echoed in Paul Pierson’s call for social scientists to situate politics in time:

Contemporary social scientists typically take a snapshot view of political life, but there is often a strong case to be made for shifting from snapshots to moving pictures. This means systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes stretching over extended periods.

Moving pictures of the Hollywood kind often help us see the world differently. Lucas’ vision of a “used future” reminds us that the present is really an accretion of many pasts, and we shouldn’t ignore those origins in our theories of political development.

State-Building in Afghanistan

The purpose of America’s war in Afghanistan, President Obama said in public remarks after his 2009 comprehensive policy review, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” State-building is an essential part of NATO’s strategy for achieving that goal. To defeat al Qaeda, the president has told us, NATO forces  not only have to kill or capture fighters affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban or to disrupt their operations; they must also “enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

It’s not hard to see why countries threatened by al Qaeda might seek to enhance the capabilities of the forces ostenibly standing alongside them in that fight, including Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s. What deserves more critical reflection than it gets, I think, is the expectation that investments in those countries’ “governance and economic capacity” will also help to achieve the same end.

In my view, the U.S. Government’s commitment to state-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan is motivated by an ideology which is so pervasive in contemporary wealthy societies that we have come to accept many of its premises as facts. In his brilliant 1998 book, Seeing Like a State, the interdisciplinary scholar James Scott labels this ideology “high modernism”. He writes (pp. 89-90) that,

[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.

As Scott shows, high modernism has been manifested historically in all kinds of state-led schemes, from standardizing traders’ weights and measures and establishing legitimate forms of personal identification to declaring and delineating private ownership of previously communal resources, planning urban areas, and establishing compulsory education. The immediate aim of these schemes has often been to facilitate taxation, and they all entail some degree of coercion. At the same time, these schemes have also been suffused with idea that a rational reordering of society along lines prescribed by technical experts would substantially improve the welfare of the affected citizenry.

High modernism associates order and progress with the presence and power of a certain kind of state. A high-modern state is expected to provide an array of public goods, starting with the maintenance of public order and extending to the administration of justice and commerce, the promotion of public health, the provision of education, and the protection of civil and political rights. As constructivist theories of international politics keep trying to remind us, this kind of state is not a natural occurring entity. Instead, it is an organizational form that has emerged only recently in human history, and that has become and remained dominant in global politics through the deliberate and persistent efforts of powerful actors. The system those actors have constructed acknowledges the sovereign authority of a specific organizational form (the national government) within an officially recognized territory (state borders) with the expectation that those governments will take responsibility for certain governance tasks—the public goods associated with the modern state—within those borders.

The flip side of the high-modernist coin is the expectation that the absence of state authority results in disorder, stagnation, and backwardness. In contemporary policy jargon, patches of land where internationally recognized governments lack authority are called “ungoverned zones.” States with large ungoverned zones are tagged as “failing,” and according the National Security Strategy released by the White House in May 2010, “Failing states breed conflict and endanger regional and global security.”

To prevent these unwanted consequences, the thinking goes, we have to build up the states responsible for those lapses, to help them extend and deepen their writ throughout the entire territory assigned to them by the community of states. Consistent with high modernism’s fundamental assumptions, the problem of state weakness is construed as a technical one, amenable to technical solutions. The state is understood as a series of interconnected systems serving specific governance functions that are universal to all states. Because those functions are universal, the thinking goes, weaker states can enhance their capacity by mimicking governance practices and structures present in more “successful” ones. Foreign governments can facilitate that process through technical guidance and financial support—in other words, knowledge and money.

A crucial lesson from Scott’s book, however, is that grand schemes rooted in high-modernist ideology have often ended badly, in large part because their implementers failed to recognize just how disruptive they usually are. State authority is fundamentally political, not technical. State-driven modernizing schemes inevitably disrupt local customs that are often deeply embedded and functional in their own right, albeit in ways that may not match the modernizers’ objectives. Because they are so disruptive, these schemes often trigger intense and usually hostile reactions from the people they are supposed to benefit. In fact, Scott uses comparative analysis to draw specific lessons about the conditions under which state-building schemes are most likely to end poorly. In his book (pp. 4-5), “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” have occurred when four elements have come together: 1) state-led plans to reorder society for administrative purposes, motivated partly by 2) a deep faith in the high-modernist ideology; 3) an authoritarian state willing and able to use its coercive power to push those plans on its subjects-cum-citizens; and 4) a civil society too weak to push back.

I have never set foot in Afghanistan, served in the military, sat in a meeting of policy principals, or implemented an aid program. Still, as a distant observer, I am struck by the similarities between the nature of, and the responses to, the schemes Scott describes and the accounts of state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Arguably, all four elements of the state-building tragedies of the past are present in Afghanistan today For starters, U.S. and European leaders sometimes talk facetiously about how they don’t expect Afghanistan to transmogrify into Switzerland, but the breadth and depth of the social engineering they have undertaken there are still extraordinarily ambitious. Foreign-funded programs have sought to build the “capacity” of the central government to do just about everything a modern state is supposed to do, from patrolling its borders and policing its streets to collecting taxes, supplying electricity and potable water, expanding access to pharmaceuticals for health care, establishing and protecting property rights, holding elections, writing laws, promoting gender equality, and collecting economic statistics. The agenda from which those programs spring is spelled out in the Afghanistan Compact forged in London in 2006 between the putatively national government led by President Hamid Karzai and donor nations. In that document, the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “the international community” resolve “to overcome the legacy of conflict in Afghanistan by setting conditions for sustainable economic growth and development; strengthening state institutions and civil society; removing remaining terrorist threats; meeting the challenge of counter-narcotics; rebuilding capacity and infrastructure; reducing poverty; and meeting basic human needs.”

The gradual elevation and expansion of these myriad objectives in the NATO-led campaign against al Qaeda that began in September 2001 has arguably turned foreign assistance to Afghanistan into one of the most ambitious social-engineering endeavors of all time. A 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that, since 2001, the United States alone has appropriated more than $52 billion in assistance to Afghanistan through the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. (This total does not include the direct costs of the combat effort, which a March 2011 CRS report estimated at $6.7 billion per month.) Approximately 56% of those funds have been spent on training and equipping Afghan forces; the other $25 billion or so were targeted at “development and humanitarian-related activities from infrastructure to private sector support, governance and democratization efforts, and counter-narcotics programs.” And, again, these are funds from the United States alone; total assistance over the past decade is presumably much higher.

We don’t talk about it much in the United States, but there is also a deeply authoritarian streak at the core of our governments’ capacity-building endeavors. For the most part, needs and remedies are identified and prioritized by foreigners who are not known or accountable to the Afghans they purport to assist. These programs are expected to benefit Afghans, but their core purpose, our representatives have told us time and again, is to advance the interests of the citizens in donor countries. All the while, the government with which donor countries “partner” in Afghanistan was itself chosen in elections marred by widespread fraud. In short, profound decisions about the world Afghans ought to inhabit and the things that need to be done to bring that world into existence are being made by people who are formally and informally unaccountable to most of the citizens those decisions will affect. That absence of accountability is the definition of authoritarian rule.

To me, an outsider who has never visited the country, the question of the capacity of civil society in Afghanistan seems to be a complicated one. In contemporary American and European political discourse, the term “civil society” usually refers to non-governmental organizations that advocate for traditionally liberal causes, including but not limited to the defense of human rights and civil liberties, protection of the natural environment, and the expansion of economic “freedoms.” As I see it, though, this definition is endogenous to high-modernist ideology, in that it legitimates organizations that complement the capacity-building agenda while marginalizing ones that might reject or resist it. Viewed through a wider lens, “traditional” non-state organizational forms such as “tribal” councils, religious courts, and informal agricultural cooperatives can also be construed as elements of a civil society, albeit one based on an alternative conceptualization of social participation in governance. Seen in this light, it seems reasonable to construe at least some of the violent responses to state-building interventions from Kabul and abroad as the kinds of civil resistance Scott’s historical survey leads us to expect in response to “internal colonization.”

Surveying the scene from a distance, then, I think it is not a stretch to say that all four of the conditions Scott associates with the most tragic failures of social engineering in the modern era are present in Afghanistan today. The point of this observation is not to claim that U.S.-led efforts to build an Afghan state are doomed to fail to secure foreign interests or to improve Afghans’ welfare, although I do believe they face long odds on both counts. By calling out the ideological foundations of these efforts, I hope to help create space for alternative views on the appropriate aims of foreign governments in Afghanistan and the best ways to achieve them. We know that the war we have chosen to fight in Afghanistan is extremely costly: more than 1,500 American lives lost so far, orders of magnitude more American lives permanently altered by severe injury and post-traumatic stress, close to $10 billion per month in American spending, and—important not just morally but also pragmatically—hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives disrupted or ended.

What we can learn by seeing the world through Scott’s lenses, I think, is that a war effort predicated on large-scale social engineering is also likely to be self-perpetuating. Contemporary counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy guides us to build state capacity as we “clear” areas of enemy fighters in an effort to draw sympathy away from that enemy and build up a durable alternative order that will rebuff the enemy’s attempts to return. A deeper awareness of the ideological foundations of the civilian side of the COIN coin and the consequences similar programs have produced in other contexts can help us understand the challenges these efforts face and the reasons they are so unlikely to succeed. Even if we are right to think that the emergence of a “modern” state in Afghanistan would significantly reduce the risk Americans face from terrorist attacks, we ought to be more honest with ourselves about how the construction of a “modern” state is not necessarily an unmitigated good for Afghans and—more important—whether or not it can be done at all.

RELATED READING

This New York Times story on a USAID-funded road-building project is a sad and interesting piece of anecdotal evidence about the kinds of problems I have in mind. Road-building is one of the activities Scott discusses at some length in his book.

A recent Slate story looks at this question through the work of the U.S. military’s 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). According to author Maura O’Connor, “Research shows that support for government significantly increases when security improves and only a little when development of infrastructure or services gets better. If U.S. forces are going to win the counterinsurgency before a full withdrawal in 2014, they may need to shift their strategy from ambitious electricity plants and large hospitals to smaller development projects in individual villages where the allegiances of local elites can be co-opted.”

Christopher J. Coyne (George Mason University) and Adam Pellillo (West Virginia University) have written this unpublished academic paper that applies Scott’s ideas to Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and reaches some conclusions similar to my own.

Norwegian social scientist Astri Suhrke published this paper , entitled “Reconstruction as Modernization: The ‘Post-Conflict’ Project in Afghanistan,” in the journal Third World Quarterly in 2006. In it, she concludes that, “The conflation of post-war reconstruction with a broader agenda for reconstruction and modernisation has brought out a wide range of tensions associated with social change…As a result, the entire project shows signs of severe contradictions that are adding to the problems caused by the growing insurgency.”

Stephen Krasner, former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State and professor of international relations at Stanford University, writes in a recent issue of Prism about the impossibility of quickly building fully functional states in some poorly governed countries, and about the other forms of sovereignty the international system establishes to try to fill the gaps. He concludes that, “Policy could be more effectively framed if decisionmakers abandoned their commitment to conventional sovereignty and recognized the variety of authority structures, not only horizontally within states but also vertically between them, that exist in the contemporary international system.” You can find a PDF of the article here.

Finally, for a thoughtful discussion of the unintended effects a strengthened Afghan state might have on international relations in South Asia and beyond, see this recent blog post at Slouching Towards Columbia.

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