Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seeing like a (NeoCon?) State

James Scott has done some interesting work on standardization and statecraft that overlaps with some of the concerns of my PhD.  His lead essay at Cato Unbound contrasts 'vernacular', organic modes of communication and organization with the legibility required for modern statecraft:
The invention of permanent inherited patronyms was, along with the standardization of weights and measures, uniform legal codes, and the cadastral land tenure survey, a vital technique in modern statecraft.... Intervention in society (or nature) for whatever purpose (e.g. delivering welfare benefits to those with particular disability or keeping watch on political enemies) requires creating the mapping or optics necessary to legibility.
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber mounts a solid critique of Hayekian market epistemology from this: "far from communicating tacit knowledge, the price system (and the codified standards that underlie it) destroys it systematically." Farrell's argument corresponds with the central argument in Michel Callon's essay on 'framing and overflows.'  Market exchange only becomes possible through framing: the simplification of ownership and the transfer of mechanisms of exchange.  But simplifications create exclusions which become the stuff of politics: access to resources, biodiversity concerns (which raise interesting questions related to this.. for another time), competing claims to expertise. These are 'overflows' - the title of this blog - and they proliferate  as framing gets more formalised, ambitious and loses connection with the social contexts in which it became initially powerful.

My thesis looks at instances where issues become central to mitigation policies using tradable permit schemes.  Though Four Corners last night shows that it's clear that adaptation policy will be another area in which problems of knowledge, legitimacy and governance are also central.  Everyone likes a story of good vs. bad, but sometimes oversimplifying does more harm than good.

Liz Jackson looked at Pakistan 'After the Deluge', a harrowing examination of the outbreak of disease in squalid camps along the fragile country.

She interviewed one commander of a Pakistani military camp that accomodated just 2000 mostly subsistence farmers and their families whose crops had been submerged in the deluge.  They were fed just a basic meal three times a day and provided a simple tent.  Kids played in stagnant pools where mosquitoes would soon hatch and bring Malaria; yet the commander turned away hundreds seeking refuge every day.

This story and others fed into a narrative that pitted the modern Pakistani State against a seemingly better well resourced enemy:

"Consequently, families will accept any form of assistance from any organisation that is willing to help them. Four Corners finds that groups with clear links to terrorist organisations are working in this area, providing aid to the needy."

One of the more memorable sequences saw Jackson interact with a group of displaced farmers along the main highway to the airport of a large southern city.  Desperate for assistance from a modern (presumably aid) representative, they presented their ID cards and stated where they were from.  It was as if they were making themselves visible to a modern savior.

Scott's arguments highlight how Jackson couldn't help but 'see like a state' - always seeking a view from above both literally (from helicopters) and metaphorically.  As Ted Porter has argued, numbers have been historically important to politically organizing and expediting modern institutions.  This is especially true of modern aid work:  How many children will dehydrate? How much food was lost? In the Jackson narrative, rival institutions are battling for the hearts and minds of displaced peoples.  In an almost throw-away line at the end, a UN official mentioned that more people were affected than the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, Pakistan Earthquake and Haitian Earthquake combined.  For all the reasons Scott and Porter detail, standardization, naming, measurement and quantification allow the synoptic apparatuses of Pakistani and other modern states to align.

But the binary of a struggling modern state and bad terrorist organizations reflects key Neo-Conservative tropes of 'clashing civilizations'; but it's dangerously simplistic, feeding an implicit narrative of theodicy: as if the rise of morally corrupt terrorist organizations were somehow responsible for the flood.

In fact, the opposite is true.

The corrupt state was itself a major contributing factor to the flooding according to experts quoted in the Herald Scotland.

Extensive forests in Northern Pakistan would normally have absorbed the autumnal monsoons.
But this month the mud and water deluge cascaded off the tree-bare mountains and hills with exceptional force and barrelled down towards the plains in mammoth fury … Trees felled by so-called illegal loggers – an infamous “timber mafia” that has representatives in the Pakistan Parliament in Islamabad and connections right to the top of government and the military – are stacked in the innumerable nullahs [steep narrow valleys], gorges and ravines leading into the main rivers.
Just as with lax building codes in Haiti, this disaster should not be viewed through some primordial moral lens of a fallen people and a vengeful nature/god but through altogether social and political issues of resource ownership and care.

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