Revolution Will Not be Engineered:
Review by Stevphen Shukaitis
At best “community” is a word used in an uncritical or unreflective way by activists and organizers. At worst it becomes a fetishized, quasi magical term that makes everything seem more relevant and rooted in practical experience. This is quite understandable, given that “community”—or neighborhood, locality, or a number of related terms—has multiple meanings and usages in different forms of knowledge and experience. This may cause some occasional semantic dissidence, but usually this is a minor concern.
While it is easy to get people to agree that it would be desirable to have stronger and more tightly knit communities (regardless of their definition of community), it is much harder to achieve anything resembling a consensus on how to achieve this. Can a better society, community, or neighborhood be planned? Or does it have to emerge through an organic process? If so, what, if any, would be the role of activists in such a process? Can the revolution be engineered, or does it have to grow? Efforts to plan a better world are linked to both acts of amazing resistance and creativity as well as mass graves and starvation when such plans become absolute and backed by state power.
This essay will explore recent plans and discussions for creating more sustainable neighborhoods taking place within the World Health Organization (Eco-Neighborhoods). It will also place them in the context of a critical examination of the fate of previous attempts to engineer social change (Seeing Like a State). I hope that this review will enrich discussions about anti-authoritarian approaches to social change and planning.
The Potential for Eco-Neighborhoods,
or “Can Ben & Jerry’s Bring You Democracy?”
The prime catalyst for the discussions encapsulated in the anthology is Local Agenda 21, which came out of the 1991 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The projects and efforts described include waste reduction and recycling programs, local equitable trading schemes, neighborhood revitalization, intentional communities, and everything in between. Although the majority of the examples tend to focus on Europe (with some examples from the United States, India, Australia, and other locations), a fairly extensive listing and summary of eco-neighborhood projects around the world is also included. Although it is refreshing to see a listing of such projects, clearly such projects encompass very small portions of the world’s population, far too small to increase sustainability as much as their designers probably hoped they would. An argument against the overall feasibility of these projects—that creating ecological communities and increasing sustainability is a task better addressed at the national and international level—is raised although never fully addressed. Corresponding with that idea is the notion that the project of ecological and environmental sustainability might be better addressed separately from creating and designing communities. In other words, addressing sustainability issues would be more successful by focusing on existing situations and uses of energy and resources (rather than creating new designs).(1)
Even just browsing the book makes it clear that this volume contains is a good deal of information that is relevant not only to imagining ecologically sound models of community but also the practical creation and design of these communities. The given outline of the principles of sustainable design include ideas such as pre-cautionary planning and the principle of subsidarity, which says that decisions should be made on the lowest level possible.(2) Similarly there is much that seems useful in what they call an ecosystem approach to community design, which includes increasing local autonomy, increasing choice and diversity, responsiveness to culture and place, connection and integration, flexibility and adaptability, and user control.(3) If there is a main focus of the different views and ideas advanced, it is that achieving environmental sustainability is best done not by questioning whether or not areas should be developed, but how they are and in whose interest. However, many of the most interesting ideas are concealed in a confusing terminology. For instance, while one encountering the concept of “social capital” might wonder why everything has to be subsumed under such market-like terms, this really refers to access to networks of mutual support. Similarly, there are other obfuscating terms, such as “social polarization,” that hide the nature of what they describe (in this case the creation of stark differences in wealth, class, and social standing).
The main idea emerging in the text is that creating and invigorating communities can have very positive synergistic effects on environmental sustainability, and vice versa. From issues of energy and waste management to food production and community governance, it is refreshing to see these issues discussed (from within the NGO-government complex, no less) in a way that does not cast them as dichotomous, “either/or” concerns but as part of a complementary project. Thus much of the book concerns balancing various technical concerns against the capacity of different environments to sustain such projects, such as determining the population density necessary to support the required infrastructure without overburdening the environment.(4)
Although many of the projects discussed seem to have real radical potential, there are also many obvious limits. More bluntly, while interesting reformist projects are presented, that could have great benefits, the discussion is clearly limited by acceptance of the state and capitalism as given constraints. The Situationists developed one of the earliest and most incisive critiques about how the state and capitalism shape space and extend control through city planning which they identified as being “the capitalist domination of space . . . the organization of universal isolation,”(5) which they regarded as the very antithesis of community and belonging. For example, there is an on-going but subtle emphasis in the text on the gulf between idealistic projects and the pressures of the market. The existence of the market, however, is not something contested here, and thus there are declarations that “images of a sustainable community are seductive but run counter to market trends.”(6) This is the Ben & Jerry’s quandary: one can have the best of intentions and institute practices and reforms that are very positive in mediating and reducing the ecological damage caused by the market, but ultimately the inability to contest the state or capitalism leads to failure, either through co-optation or the inability to resist market forces. Similar problems and contradictions plague cooperatives, worker collectives, and other forms of economic and direct democracy that try to survive under current conditions.
Similarly there are constraints based around the assumption that plans and desires for ecological communities are something that need the state to come into existence. Although it is mentioned that a few of the projects occur without state initiative, backing, or support (and even in contestation of it), this is not emphasized, and it is generally assumed that such projects need the backing of the state, which is described as “hold[ing] the key in moves towards sustainable development.”(7) These constraints generate a weird form of defeatism that seeps through some of the essays, which is evident when the decline of community and locality is discussed as though it were a natural and inevitable result of more affluent consumers choosing cars and the suburbs (thus totally neglecting the role played by the state and business in creating suburbanization and urban flight). This coupled with claims like “intensely localized democracy is something of a dream” and that the visions for eco-neighborhoods that the book discusses “can reflect pious hopes rather than economic and social reality.”(8)
Hallelujah German Forestry Science!
Why the State Can’t See the Forest for Just the Trees
Scott’s main claim is that the state creates forms of knowledge and understanding that are suited to its own needs; it’s goal is to create “maps of legibility,” to rationalize and standardize social hieroglyphics into forms of knowledge that make a society knowable, manageable, and exist in an administratively convenient format.(9) It is the project of fixing populations and resources, the sedentation of mobile populations (pastoralists, serfs, runaway slaves, nomads, etc), and the administration of the social and economic order through bureaucratic processes and knowledge. The state then tries to replace local forms, methods, and practices (which reflect the needs and peculiarities of their place of origin) with standardized practices and forms that are essential to its functioning.(10)
To engage in this process of administration and control, the state generates corresponding forms of technical and administrative knowledge, which Scott describes as techne, or analytical, technical, universal, scientific forms of knowledge that are “self-characteristic, above all, of self-contained systems of reasoning in which the findings may be logically derived from the initial assumptions.”(11) Thus the idea of seeing like a state, the process of focusing the forms of knowledge and practice that designate value according to the utilitarian needs of the state, namely economic gain and extraction. Charles Tilly argues that the state itself emerged through such a process, where the need of the lord to extract wealth and resources created processes and administrative capacities that developed beyond their original intent.(12) These processes would include everything from the relatively benign (compiling labor, environmental, and health data) to the more blatantly egregious forms (counterintelligence, urban planning as social control, etc).
As an example of the limits of techne, German forestry science developed methods for growing trees in neatly ordered rows that greatly benefited extraction. However, the imposed order lead to a decrease in plant, animal, and insect diversity and the lack of decaying materials on the forest floor, all of which lead to a decrease in the availability of critical nutrients and minerals for the soil and thus ultimately the decline of the forest.(13) Similar examples include the planning of Soviet collective farms from a hotel room in Chicago (thus totally ignoring all the local social and environmental conditions where these farms were to be built) or the gigantism of mono-crop agriculture that fails to replenish soil nutrients or stop erosion, but yields visually ordered fields that are easily harvested.
The underlying problem with such plans is that they are united by their reliance upon techne, instead of the local forms of knowledge and practice—which Scott calls mçtis—that most often underlie and hold together communities and local systems of production. Mçtis, an idea connected to Kropotkin’s conception of mutuality, typically translates as “cunning”; it “represents a wide variety of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment . . . [it] resists simplification into deductive principles which can be successfully transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply.”(14) Scott argues that mçtis represents informal customs and techniques that can’t be codified, but are essential in the process of sustaining the lives of communities and often support formal forms of knowledge.(15)
Scott describes how the functioning of the modern state is predicated upon these forms of legibility, which are intimately involved in large scale social engineering projects and ultimately responsible for their failure. The characteristics that unite such projects, from the visually ordered but untenable German forests to the dismal failures of Soviet collective farms, are:
It is this combination of authoritarian power and the belief in the total correctness of technical planning that combine to create a unified space of control, a regime of power and submission administered through an ordering of space. The state needs a trained intelligentsia (or vanguard party) to develop and use these forms of technocratic knowledge that are integral to its functioning. Although Scott focuses his critique on relatively recent states and development schemes, many of the characteristics he observers could be applied to ancient and modern empires alike. The difference between such time periods, however, would seem to be that it has not been until the past several hundred years that the social sciences have expanded to the point that the knowledge and information generated by them has become useful to the state in its administrative planning.
Towards Anti-Authoritarian Community
James Scott’s critique of the failures of statist plans and schemes for building community and the ideas put forward about creating eco-neighborhoods raise interesting questions and quandaries for radicals interested in creating new communities and reinvigorating existing ones. The reality that ideas and plans for building eco-neighborhoods and communities have moved from activists and organizers to the discourse of more institutionalized NGOs and the World Health Organization in ways show the success that environmental movements have had over the past thirty years. Now corporate, business, and government interests are prone to frame their actions in terms of sustainability,(18) although often this is merely an attempt to conceal their deplorable actions rather than an indication that their practices have really changed.
So while plans for developing eco-neighborhoods and communities are being putting forth by those who could be aptly described as the technical-intelligentsia class, the ideas discussed differ in several important ways. While the forms of technocratic knowledge described by Scott hold pretenses to being universal, objective, and valid regardless of location, the forms of planning and community building discussed by Barton et al are much more attuned to creating an inclusive, democratic process. Nevertheless, when looking at their notions of community and neighborhood planning, the dynamic of technical knowledge and its administration is still troubling from an anti-authoritarian view. Even if the citizens of a locality get to vote occasionally on plans being put forth, there still exists a profoundly anti-democratic dynamic in the nature of technical planning. And the ideas being put forth are clearly constrained by the ideological and practical constraints implied by the accepting of the state and the market and the implicit (and occasionally explicit) argument that people don’t want to manage their own community’s affairs.
In The Anti-Politics Machine James Ferguson argues that development schemes require a cadre of policy experts who evaluate and discuss projects according to the pragmatic and technical criteria inherent to their discipline in a way that removes such issues from the sphere of politics. Through this process development and community planning is “depoliticized:” removed from the realm of public debate. The evaluation of plans is done on the basis of technical criteria created by experts working on the subject.(19) Under these terms of debate one can criticize specific aspects of a plan but will remain trapped within the discourse created by these forms of knowledge.(20)
Ultimately, while looking at the history of how state based plans for social engineering elucidate the inherent failure of such strategies, the ideas put forth in Eco-Neighborhoods in many ways overlap with Scott in terms of taking steps to avoid the more egregious analytical arrogance that has plagued many plans for social change and community building. In other words, today’s community planners are aware that they cannot be cloistered bureaucrats with maps and charts that shape the world without having at least some sort of process where the community can have some input into this process, even if such ends up usually being more a promise than a lived reality. Barton concludes that it is necessary to place emphasis on the planning process rather than a product, to empower local communities through neighborhood action plans, to catch government policy up with its expressed aims, and to change to prevailing culture of local decision making and professionals.(21) He further argues for ditching reductionist views of environmental and community planning and, instead, emphasizing quality of life rather than quantitative measures: to use of a “holistic, egalitarian, inclusive set of values and conceptual models.”(22) Similarly Scott, somewhat cautiously develops several rules of thumb that he suggests should temper planning efforts, suggests taking small steps, favoring plans which are reversible if necessary, to plan for surprises, and to plan for human inventiveness and creativity.(23)
From these ideas one can draw several conclusions. One possible response is that Scott’s analysis would lead one to reconsider and improve the “optics of power . . . Like a religious faith, the visual codification [that] was almost impervious to criticism or dissenting evidence”(24) by incorporating forms of local knowledge and practice into state planning. That seems to be the type of direction followed by Sustainable Communities. Alternately one could conclude such proves that revolutionary social change is impossible, and local knowledge and practices are best incorporated into the market (the “Milton Friedman reading” of the text). Both conclusions are dissatisfying at some level and point to a possible third option, which could be tentatively identified as reconstituting the revolutionary project(s) of utopian social change and planning by extending the logic and nature of local knowledge and practice through a democratic community building process. This would be the line of thought that connects mçtis and mutuality—and provides a useful avenue for thinking about the utopian framework outside of the scope of power Scott discusses.
And that is the challenge for anti-authoritarians and radicals who are interested in building local communities and neighborhoods. Sociologists like Alain Touraine may claim that the difference between the “social left” and the “ultra left” is that those further on the left “speak of power and domination in terms that leave no room for autonomous action,”(25) but it is the task of those who realize that one’s means must be consonant with one’s ends to find and devise ways for communities to collectively participate in the management and control of their own area, without the impingement of a technical or elite class. Whether this would be through a process similar to the participatory budgeting in Brazil or something new remains to be seen. But, an anti-authoritarian community planning policy would be far from what is now understood as policy, which is really the negation of democracy through dominance of technical knowledge and state planning. It would be what David Graeber describes as “low theory” or “a way of grappling with those real immediate questions that emerge from a transformative project.”(26) It would be the practical realization of freedom itself.