Mid-century utopian visions resulted in some of the greatest tragedies in history. What went wrong?
Legibility - the state can’t control or tax you if it can’t see you, so it tends to want to force the world to conform to some simple model that is easy to measure and manipulate. Standardizing on common vocabulary across realm of management. Not inherently a bad thing - enables economies of scale and low friction exchanges. But usually also moves power and resources to the center too, and that often becomes the underlying motivation eg smallholders usually outperform plantations in raw productivity but they are harder to tax and control so various states have forcibly pushed for plantations instead.
Legible, official model is often underpinned by a complex, informal and illegible world of norms, favors, networking etc. Work-to-rule strikes are a vivid demonstration of what happens without this underpinning.
Measurements in France. States wanted to better understand how much tax they could extract before peasants starved and rebelled. Requires standardized units of measurement to feasibly collect data across an entire country. But local measurements were already the subject of long power struggles between tenants and feudal lords, since manipulating measurements can alter taxes. Much resistance to outside changes. Many failed attempts to establish a national standard. Final slow success to due in part to increase in long-distance trade and the ideological impact of the French Revolution.
Replacing local access rights with national land laws. Similarly, making maps of ownership.
Invention of surnames. Can’t tax people if you can’t keep track of who they are. Generally resisted for exactly that reason.
Standardizing on a single language. Shifts power to the center - now need to learn a new language to understand and navigate the laws that apply to you.
Create legibility by imposing simplified model onto a complex system. Again, not inherently a bad thing eg universal education, food and drug standards, herd immunity via compulsory vaccination, trade agreements that enable low-friction commerce etc.
Becomes dangerous when we add ideology (blind to failure) and power (can overrule resistance). Most social interventions don’t work, so intervention without feedback is very likely to be bad.
High modernism - scientism as a religion. Success of the scientific process in some domains created huge over-confidence in others (cf Uncontrolled on how generalizing from small numbers of experiments fails in complex domains). Wrapped up in ideas of Western and academic superiority - coming to teach the peasants what they are doing wrong, so any resistance to changes is interpreted as stubborn backwardness without merit. Glorifies simple generalizable laws and models, and discounts complex, locale-specific knowledge. Really into grand plans to rebuild society from scratch.
Aesthetic of rationality/legibility - tidy, orderly, straight lines, right angles, symmetry. Often takes precedence over even optimizing the target variable - strong assumption that the optimal model must be an orderly one.
Authoritarian planning tends to be frozen - it doesn’t account or allow for any change or evolution in the nature of the city or the use of its spaces.
Examples of failed interventions:
Scientific forestry. For peasants, forest is source of food, fodder, medicine, firewood, different kinds of timber for different uses etc. For state, forest is a source of income. So the value of the forest is measured entirely in how salable timber it produces, and how reliably. Optimizing for that measure produced a uniform grid of mono-culture trees of standardized sizes. Useless for the peasants. Yields were much improved at first, but disturbed a complex system that is still not well understood, and within a century forests began to die.
Planned cities eg Brasilia, New Delhi. Provide grand views from a distance and provide each person with a standard unit of space and facilities. Fail to create the community and streetlife that make a city safe and livable, because those weren’t easily reducible to a few variables and equations. (See Jacobs on streetlife).
Soviet collectivization. Inspired by huge mechanized farms in the US. Vision of doing for farming what assembly lines did for manufacturing. Both Soviet and US attempts to do so failed badly. Party resorted instead to martial law and grain seizures, creating peasant uprisings. Forcibly relocated peasants into standardized, pre-planned mega-farms which were ruled by agricultural specialists. Ignored local conditions, vastly over-simplified and over-abstracted different areas of land and differently-skilled populations. Pressure from above to deny failures led to plans quickly losing contact with reality. Peasants gained most of their food by farming their own private plots in their little free time. Peasants effectively became indentured slaves, stripped of any cultural institutions that might be a focal point for rebellion, and naturally responded with terrible productivity. More deaths from starvation that WW1 and civil war combined.
Compulsory villagization in Tanzania. Similar story. Government (with support of the Western world) wanted to modernize the peasantry. Forcibly relocated peasants to standardized, pre-planned villages. (Was supposed to be voluntary, but top-down pressure for results led to initiative-taking). Peasants were moved vast distances, rendering their deep local knowledge worthless. (Peasants don’t come in standardized, fungible units). Forced to apply Western farming techniques which failed badly in the local climate and ecology. (The peasant practices of dense polycropping turn out to be much more effective in climates with high primary productivity than monocropping and ridging as is common in the West). Authorities heard reports of atrocities but insisted they were isolated cases.
And again in Ethiopia. Lead to widespread famine.
Contrasting metis and techne. Complex, implicit knowledge specific to a single locale vs simple, explicit rules that generalize across a wide variety of situations. Techne lends itself to economies of scale in creating, applying and teaching knowledge. Metis requires long experience which means that workers are not fungible; this is a roadblock to centralization and scaling eg craftsmen vs assembly lines. Led to overestimating the value of techne to the point of discounting metis entirely.
Closing section gives advice on avoiding such catastrophes, which is almost point for point the same as the advice in Uncontrolled.