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(en) US, The New Formulation* Vol.2, #2 - The Revolution Will Not be Engineered - Community Planning, Rationality, and Utopia - Review by Stevphen Shukaitis

From Stevphen Shukaitis <patrioticdissent@hotmail.com>
Date Sat, 18 Sep 2004 09:56:46 +0200 (CEST)


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* Sustainable Communities: The Potential for Eco-Neighborhoods
By Hugh Barton (editor) London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 2002
* Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition
Have Failed - By James C. Scott New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998
-- 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 first text is a collection of essays edited by Hugh Barton, a researcher
and consultant on sustainable design and planning and the executive director
of the World Health Organization Center for Healthy Cities and Urban Policy.
Although Barton seems to have the most dominant voice in the collection, it
is a fairly diverse set of essays and brings in perspectives from
architecture, permaculture design, public health, urban and community
planning, environmental science, and energy policy. Its stated purpose is to
go beyond “fuzzy” thinking about community planning and to formulate new
ideas about how to reinvigorate local communities in an environmentally
sustainable manner. Oddly enough, some of the key concepts used throughout
the book (eco-villages, eco-neighborhoods, etc) are never explicitly defined
and used differently by different authors. Nonetheless, an eco-neighborhood
or eco-village is implicitly defined as the merging of community planning
process with an ecosystem approach to environmental sustainability. An
eco-neighborhood is the result of making ecological sustainability a central
element of community planning and design.

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
Closely related and relevant to the idea of planning for social change and
community building being constrained by the bounds of both the market and
the state is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human
Condition Have Failed by Yale anthropologist James Scott. This book contains
a very insightful analysis of the failure of state-based social engineering,
which is perhaps especially effective because it is not written by an
overtly anarchist author. Scott uses his skills of analysis to tie together
and compare widely disparate projects for designing social change and
planning communities, from the collectivized farms of Soviet Russia and the
forced ujamaa villagizing in Tanzania, to Le Corbusier’s high modernist city
planning in France and Brazil and China’s “Great Leap Forward.”

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:

1. the administrative ordering of nature and society
2. a high modernist ideology . . . [a] muscle bound version of the
self-confidence about scientific and technical progress . . . and the
rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific
understanding of natural laws
3. [an] authoritarian state able and willing to use the full weight of
its coercive power to bring these high modernist designs into being
4. prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these
plans(16)

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 Planning Policies?
“Any attempt to completely plan a village, a city, or for that matter a
language is certain to run afoul of the same social reality. A village, a
city, or a language, is the jointly created, partly unintended product of
many, many hands. To the degree that authorities insist on replacing this
ineffably complex web of activity with formal rules and regulations, they
are certain to disrupt the web in ways they cannot possibly foresee.”(17)

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.

Endnotes
1. Sustainable Communities: The Potential for Eco-Neighborhoods. Ed.
Hugh Barton (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 2002), 20-28.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Ibid., 89-90.
4. Ibid., 29, 11-113.
5. Atila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem, “Elementary Program of the Bureau
of Unitary Urbanism,” The Situationist International Anthology, Ed/Trans Ken
Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 65-67.
6. Sustainable Communities, 12.
7. Ibid., 251.
8. Ibid., 128, 15.
9. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve
the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1998), 2-3.
10. Russian sociologist and anarchist Pitirim Sorokin describes a
similar process with the emergence of a standardized form of measuring time
and dates as being driven by the demands of engaging in commerce and
exchanged in a uniform and thus more easily coordinated environment. See
Sociocultural causality, space, time (New York: Russel & Russel Inc., 1964),
147-166.
11. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 320.
12. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States AD 990-1990
(Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, Inc., 1996)
13. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 20.
14. Ibid., 313-316.
15. Jacques Godbout makes a similar argument for the role of the gift:
that it cannot be codified or defined, but yet is a force that supports and
is integral to the functioning of the social order even as its existence and
importance is denied by that order. See The World of the Gift (Montreal:
McGill-Queens University Press, 1998).
16. James Scott, Seeing Like a State, 4-5.
17. Ibid., 256.
18. Some examples of this would include the World Summit on Sustainable
Design, or any of the oil companies (BP, Shell, etc) who keep hawking their
displays of “responsible corporate citizenship” or “environmental
responsibility.” Ironically, many times more is spent on the advertising of
these measures than the actual plans for environmental improvement
discussed.
19. James Ferguson. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,”
Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minneapolis Press, 1994)
20. Eric Laursen, Plundering the People’s Pension: The Politics of
Social Security Since 1980 (Forthcoming, 2004), 16.
21. Eco-Neighborhoods, 246.
22. Ibid., 251.
23. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 345.
24. Ibid., 253.
25. Alain Touraine. Beyond Neoliberalism. Trans. David Macey (Cambridge,
UK: Polity Press, 2001), 77.
26. David Graeber. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly
Paradigm Press, Forthcoming 2004), 3.

* From: The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books - Volume
Two, Number Two --- Winter Spring 2004.
http://www.newformulation.org/


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