🎧 The Perils of State Power


If the state fails to improve the lives of its citizens, then what is it for? James Scott, the Sterling professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University, believes that modern states tend to impose social structures that are antithetical to human flourishing. In his seminal works, like Seeing Like a State, he argues that we should give two cheers for anarchism: while states are here to stay, we should forever remain vigilant about the ways in which they do violence to individuals and societies.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and James Scott discuss the case for anarchism, the need for a state, and the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. 

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You are one of the great critics of the state. Why should we be skeptical of the state?

James Scott: First of all, let's notice that something like the Danish welfare state has been around for perhaps 35 years, maximum. And states that took their population’s welfare at all seriously have been around only since the Bismarckian state of Prussia. I think that was the beginning of a state that tried to systematically understand the health, longevity and so on, of its population. So, the point is that for almost all of human history, one has been dealing with a quite different state whose objective was to extract as much wealth, grain, taxes, and manpower from the population as possible, and to help support forms of bonded labor or slavery.

Mounk: And so you think that that is, in a way, the more typical form that the state has taken? Do you think that should still inform how we think about even relatively benevolent states like the Danish one now? Or have we managed to overcome that legacy, at least in some parts of the world?

Scott: I call myself a sort of “half-assed anarchist,” and that's why the book that I wrote was called Two Cheers for Anarchism, not three cheers. I don't think we're going to abolish the state. But the thing to remember about the welfare state and the emancipatory things it does is that it has only done that with the pistol at its temple. That is to say, the French Revolution eliminated the estates and created the idea of equal citizenship. The New Deal was essentially an effort to save capitalism from revolutionary pressures from below because of the Depression. And so: Do states make emancipatory moves? Yes, they do. But they only do it with a pistol at their temple. And we should understand that that's how such emancipatory moves take place.

Mounk: I know that there's a sort of lively debate about whether human beings were better off before they formed these political entities, which often came along with deep hierarchies and forms of social control. There’s an argument about whether they were economically better off before they did that as well. As somebody who is ambivalent about the state—who has “two cheers” for anarchy, not three—how would you describe the transformation in the lives of the residents of those early states? 

Scott: If we're talking about the early state, then it seems to me, Steven Pinker to the contrary, that the answer was simple. Life was better for hunters and gatherers than it was for subjects in the early state. That's absolutely clear—it's clear in the physical remains in the bones, if you like. The bones of people in the early agricultural states show more signs of malnutrition, and interruptions in growth, because of that amount of pressure, mostly iron deficiency. And if you find the skeletons of people living in hunter-gatherer foraging societies, their skeletons are bigger with fewer interruptions in growth, and they show very little sign ever of any malnutrition or vitamin deficiency.

Mounk: My understanding is that then, from the early states, there’s only very limited economic growth for thousands of years. So to what extent does the image you describe still apply in medieval Europe or in the China of A.D. 1000 or in different parts of the world until, let's say, 1700?

Scott: If you're talking about population growth, we have the same phenomenon we've talked about in other contexts already. And that is that in 1750, which is not so very long ago, the world population was only three-quarters of a billion. And it's now going on eight billion. So the point is that, yes, the population expanded, but it grew very, very slowly, for the longest possible time. And that curve is one of those famous hockey stick curves in which it goes up dramatically only after the 17th century and so on, and the fossil fuel revolution. I think it is absolutely clear that all of these early states had a problem of keeping that population in place. Because it was exploited in conscription, it was exploited for its surplus, for unfree labor, and so on. And as a result of that, this population had to be systematically replaced, and it was replaced by “wars of capture.” So 70% of the population of Athens are slaves. And those slaves are captured by the Athenian military. And when they capture a place, they march especially the women and children back, because they also have a reproductive problem. That is to say they want to capture women, and children especially. And they want to capture the women, not just because they are labor, or wives for that matter, but they are captured for the reproductive services that help to solve the population problem.

Mounk: I feel like there's a different work of yours that was particularly relevant to the early modern period, which is Seeing like a State and your critique of ways in which those states tried to rationalize their territory, remake their populations and their social world. What is wrong with what you call a “modernist vision”? Why does that create a different kind of problem we really should be concerned about?

Scott: A modernist vision depends on how extreme it is. The modernist vision requires for its high modernism, for its most extreme examples, the absence of the restraining factors of democratic social organization, resistance. I start off that book with my example of scientific forestry. Scientific forestry is a good example because once you take some complicated natural phenomenon like a forest, and reduce it to so many cubic feet of firewood and lumber, you destroy all the ecological processes in the forest, and open that forest to disease and collapse. And so in a sense, to take a natural phenomenon and reduce it to a one-commodity machine is almost certainly to violate ecological processes that we don't understand. And that then has dramatically negative effects over the long run. 

Mounk: I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on a more urban example of this. I was thinking a lot about your book when I was traveling briefly in Brazil two years ago, when I went to Brasilia, which is beloved by architects around the world—it looks beautiful in models. But when I was there, I was really struck by how it just did not work at all as an urban environment. So it's one example after the other in the city of how a very utopian vision of a what a city might look like has gone wrong. Tell us a little bit about how that fits into problems you're interested in.

Scott: In the course of writing Seeing like a State, I was struck again and again by the mistaken assumption that visual order is synonymous with efficiency and working order. And my favorite quote is from Jane Jacobs who was interested in more complicated cities, and how they worked. And her point was that the intestines of a rabbit might look like a mess but they are perfectly designed for doing what they do. Her other example was the city desk in an urban newspaper office. So in Brasilia—and that's the problem with a certain kind of architecture—the visual order is the order that is seen from a helicopter, as opposed to experienced by people who actually live on the ground. […] Like Bauhaus, it was an architecture for an abstract human. A human being who could be anywhere, who needed so many square feet per person, who needed so much freshwater, who needed so much sunlight, who needed so much outdoor space. What's interesting is that it's the assumption that people were units, rather than bearers of culture, aesthetics, and so on. 

Mounk: I think cities are a great prism into this larger critique of state planning and what works about it and what doesn't. What about cities like New York, which are on a grid—they are quite deeply planned cities, actually—and yet they feel much more organic, much more lively? Did something go right in the planning there, or is the sort of force of humanity in a place like New York so strong that it has overpowered the planning and rehumanized it?

Scott: The interesting thing about New York, from my perspective, is that it's a hybrid city. That is to say, south of Wall Street—and Wall Street is where the wall of the original Dutch village was located—Manhattan is not a grid.  

Mounk: The basic plan of it is much more like European city for that reason. 

Scott: Exactly. And actually was extremely desirable as a place to live because it grew more organically without [the] straight lines of a grid. Whereas, New York above Wall Street is the city you would design if you gave a child a ruler and a blank piece of paper, and said: “Design for me a city with the sort of numbers of avenues and numbers of streets.” And that's part of the Enlightenment idea of having a lucid, legible, easily navigated city, and there are Midwestern cities in which their streets are avenues that are numbered.

Mounk: How do you feel about urban development around the world at the moment? In Africa, where we obviously have huge population growth, a lot of it seems to be in unplanned developments and to some extent, slums—in places like Nairobi, Lagos, and many other cities around the continent. And a lot of people would look at that and say, “Well, there's no visual order, there are a lot of these houses that don't have running water or electricity. So, this is terrible.” And then, on the other hand, you have the rise of the new Asian mega-cities, particularly in China. Many second-, third-tier cities, which probably aren't even particularly well known to many listeners of this podcast, but that will have millions of people in them, that are often hyper-planned, right? [...] Should we be more concerned about what life may turn out to look and feel like in these relatively planned and affluent Asian super cities? And should we be relatively less concerned than many are about what the sort of long-term legacies are of these unplanned developments in places like Lagos and Nairobi? 

Scott: Let us take, for example, Singapore. And Singapore is actually a model for China to some considerable degree. Singapore decided—this would be at the end of the [1960s], under Lee Kuan Yew—they probably built more new housing than any city of its size anywhere in the world at the time. And like Baron Haussmann in Paris, it had lots of good public health results. As people had cleaner water, they had larger apartments, living space. They had sewage, indoor toilets, and playgrounds, and so on. So, yes, there were public health and sanitation results that were completely positive. On the other hand, the design was intended to break up Malay and Chinese clan areas and Indian areas, and to disperse all of these ethnic and lineage groups over the public housing landscape, so that they became completely dependent on the People's Action Party for whether you got into preschool, whether you got public welfare, whether you got certain government subsidies, and so on. So it was a plan that did two things at the same time: it improved public health, and it atomized the population. So a lot of public housing has an undeclared purpose of social control, and the prevention of organized dissent.

Mounk: I have to say, one of the many things I admire about you is that as a not-entirely-young man, you started to learn Burmese, and you have a significant work on the country coming out relatively soon, as I understand. What have you been working on with respect to the country? And then perhaps after you tell us about that, I'd love to hear your assessment of the dire but also, in some ways, inspiring political situation in the country. Tell us about the military regime there, the ways in which it has been challenged over the last decade, and how it then took control again a few months ago.

Scott: The military took over and has ruled essentially from 1962 until today. So we're talking 60 years of military rule, even though it was shared with the elected parliament for the last 10 years. It's only in the last 10 years that the Burmese themselves have been exposed in a big way to world currents and an open world of media and newspapers and social media, which has been very important. And so what's interesting to me, and kind of surprising, is that in a country that has so little, if you like, democratic practice the reaction to the military coup was so massive and concentrated. [...] But it's been the largest nonviolent democratic movement, I think we've seen in decades and inspiring in terms of its creativity as well, in hundreds of ways. I used to think that the Hong Kong protesters had essentially created a new repertoire for nonviolent democracy protests, but I think the Burmese have outdone them over the past two months. And I don't know how this is going to turn out because, unlike Hong Kong, this is a military that is actually executing with snipers and so on, protesters by shooting them in the head and the chest, and essentially murdering them as a form of intimidation. And that is something that they learned to do in repressing all of the minority groups, like the Rohingya. So now, the Burmese public is experiencing what the ethnic minorities have been experiencing for the last three or four decades.

Mounk: I'm still trying to digest the implications of all of your work for how to think about politics today. And I know that that is a very big question. But it is one that I have grappled with reading your work, which has changed the way that I see the world, which has made me uncomfortable with many of the assumptions I used to have, which I find persuasive in many ways, but when it comes to the sort of upshot, I sometimes get a little bit stuck. Precisely because we do live in these complicated modern states, it seems impossible not to do any planning at all. We both—as you've made very amply evident in the context of Myanmar—care about values like democracy. So, how do you take the anarchist critique of the worst aspects of the modern state, and channel it into a productive politics where you can nevertheless go out in the world and try and fight for some of the values like making sure that poor people in the world have better standards of living, like making sure that we have democracy and rights and freedoms for most people? What should change about the political practice of those who share those values if they take the lessons of your work seriously?

Scott: I puzzle over the same things as you puzzle over. It's not as if I have some straightforward answer. If we've got to have states, let's have social democratic states with functioning democracies and a welfare state. However, if you step back from that, and widen the lens, much more than we have, then all of these states that we admire, mostly Western states, they have gotten where they've gotten by plundering the resources of the world for industrial growth in a way that seems completely unsustainable. The collateral damage of Western economic growth—on resources, the CO2 in the air, forms of bondage in the third world and in mines and plantations, and so on—it's not a pretty picture of, if you like, the substructure or infrastructure of successful capitalist development, even when it's in a political form that is relatively admirable compared to other forms. So when you open the lens that wide, I become a true pessimist I’m afraid. 

To learn more about ways to support the democracy movement in Myanmar, please visit: https://www.mutualaidmyanmar.org/

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