Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Manufacturing what could not be discovered

After this weekend's post about defining capitalism, it was suggested that I take a look at Charles Tilly's essay "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime" (warning: the link takes you to a pdf that is riddled with an unbelievable amount of typos). It's a useful essay, which I may have something specific to say about later. But it reminded me of aspects of James C. Scott's work, in particular his Seeing Like a State (see previous posts on this book, here and here), and his more recent The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The latter, as I've mentioned elsewhere, is primarily about the ways in which Southeast Asian "hill peoples" have (off and on, in differing combinations) avoided being incorporated into various states. As such, it ends up being an extended, fascinating discussion of what exactly a state, any state, really is. This is especially helpful, given the common tendency in the liberal so-called democracies for citizens to identify with the aims of the state, or to believe that certain swell-sounding stated aims are its real aims.

There is much in The Art of Not Being Governed that is worth sharing and discussing, but for now I want to leave you with this passage from the fascinating section on "ethnogenesis":
Once launched, the "tribe" as a politicized entity can set in motion social processes that reproduce and intensify cultural difference. They can, as it were, create the rationale for their own existence. Political institutionalization of identities, if successful, produces this effect by reworking the pattern of social life. The concept of "traffic patterns" used by Benedict Anderson to describe the creation by the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, virtually from thin air, of a "Chinese" ethnic group, best captures this process. In Batavia, the Dutch discerned, according to their preconceptions, a Chinese minority. This mixed group did not consider itself Chinese; its boundaries merged seamlessly with those of other Batavians, with whom they freely intermarried. Once the Dutch discerned this ethnicity, however, they institutionalized their administrative fiction. They set about territorializing the "Chinese" quarter, select "Chinese" officials, set up local courts for customary Chinese law as they saw it, instituted Chinese schools, and in general made sure that all those falling within this classification approached the colonial regime as Batavian "Chinese." What began as something of the Dutch imperial imagination took on real sociological substance through the traffic patterns of institutions. And voilĂ !—after sixty years or so there was indeed a self-conscious Chinese community. The Dutch had, to paraphrase Wilmsen, through an administrative order, manufactured what they could not discover.

Once a "tribe" is institutionalized as a political entity—as a unit of representation with, say, rights, land, and local leaders—the maintenance and reinforcement of that identity becomes important to many of its members. [...] The more successful the identity is in winning resources and prestige, the more its members will have an interest in patrolling its borders and the sharper those borders are likely to become. The point is that once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty. (pp. 264-5)
This seems to me to have all kinds of relevance beyond the specific sorts of examples Scott gives. That is, not only did the Dutch "manufacture what they could not discover" in creating a "Chinese minority" in Batavia, but consider how the "Dutch" (i.e., a ruling stratum identified as "Dutch") themselves manufactured the Dutch! The same is true everywhere: ordinary people become subsumed within states and statelets, becoming, over time, "French" or "English" or whatever.


David Auerbach said...

What are "ordinary people"? I do not think that there is some liberated Rousseauian state-of-nature condition prior to nationalism in which people are pristine prior to being contaminated. There is only one constraining system versus another.

I think it was this reason that made me think more of Barrington Moore's book than of Scott's: Scott falls into a state-of-grace fallacy that makes him sound like Hayek: which is to say, Scott comes off as a neoliberal. Not that he is grossly inaccurate, but that he engages in question-begging Often overlooked but the best out of the neoliberal bunch is, in my opinion, Rustow's Freedom and Domination, which like Schumpeter does not shrink from facing the hard questions.

Richard said...

There is no reason whatsoever to think that I believe in "some liberated Rousseauian state-of-nature condition prior to nationalism in which people are pristine prior to being contaminated". Nor do I think your reading of Scott is accurate or charitable.

David Auerbach said...

I apologize for inferring that you thought that the move from "ordinary people"->state citizens was a negative one.

But how was I being uncharitable to Scott? I liked the book.... (If anything, I'd say I go easy on him because I give him a pass on his occasional excursions into silliness such as "Lenin and Le Corbusier, notwithstanding the great disparity in their training and purpose, shared some basic elements of the high­ modernist outlook.")

Richard said...

There is a big difference between 'inferring that [I] thought that the move from "ordinary people"->state citizens was a negative one' and what you actually said. Even so, I'm not sure what I think about that move. I'm more interested in what we can learn from it moving forward. (It seems useful to realize that ethnicities or nationalities are constructions, not something we're necessarily stuck with.)

As for Scott, I think you have to try very hard to read him falling into a state-of-grace fallacy. And calling him "neoliberal" is essentially meaningless and, I'd think, insulting. Is he an economist? Does he implement economic policy, or advocate for one?

And I don't mind that so-called silliness in that sentence at all. In isolation it might seem weird, but in the context of the book, it makes sense and serves his argument (which yes, is schematic, but as such helps to illuminate much).

Your comments on this post and the other one came off as condescending, like you were swooping in to save me from some poor Romantic delusions. I appreciate your point of view, and very much appreciate the reading suggestions, but I did not appreciate that, hence my irritated responses.

David Auerbach said...

Scott compares himself to Hayek in the intro and cites him approvingly on several occasion. At any rate, I don't think calling someone a neoliberal is an insult--it's not like I'm saying he's Ayn Rand.

As for the rest, I don't want to come off as any more condescending, so I'll stop there. I figure I'm pretty polite next to the average blog commenter (I haven't called you or anyone else a "pile of shit," as one litblogger did me), but so be it.

For me, sweeping accusations of false consciousness such as the following are far more condescending than anything I said:

"We've bought wholesale into the culture of ever-continuing and -expanding consumption, the apolitical notion of economic growth (apolitical because placed outside of politics and all too much left-wing political thinking), all lip service to the contrary notwithstanding."

"I don't know that people believe revolution is as easy as all that, not anymore anyway. It's seen as hard, all too hard, and we grow impatient, our attention wavers, and we have to get up early for work tomorrow and hey isn't there something on TV tonight? And there's the still, all-too-widespread belief that the system itself is somehow salvageable (but it's not, it's not). It's the only framework most of us understand."

"Those of us who live in the Western so-called "democracies" have been taught to expect limitless growth. We have this dangerous expectation, still, in part because many of us have experienced the period in question as "a time of plenty". Worse, our sense of the economy, as somehow outside of nature, as outside politics, has helped narrow our sense of what a democratic politics might look like, has contributed to our incredibly debased notions of democracy as about certain kinds of limited participation (manufactured consent) and certain kinds of institutions."

Sorry if that too sounds condescending.

Richard said...


I suppose you don't believe or accept that my "we" there necessarily and always includes myself.