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States, populations, and legibility


The absurd reactions to “Trump performs banal Presidential ritual” all my colleagues here have commented on has reminded me that I meant to link to Jason Kuznicki’s smart article last week, riffing on Scott’s Seeing Like a State, authoritarianism and legibility:

In his landmark book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott described states as being better able to see some parts of the societies they governed, and less able to see other parts. Thus states can control some things more easily than others.

This unevenness of vision is a problem, as states came to realize. Soon they began taking steps to make the people and places they governed easier to survey – and thus to control. States’ efforts to measure us have produced many familiar parts of the modern world. Scott writes:

The permanent patronym, which most Westerners have come to take for granted, is in fact a comparatively new phenomenon. 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. It was, in nearly every case, a state project designed to allow officials to identify unambiguously the majority of its citizens. The armature of the modern state: tithe and tax rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, deeds, birth, marriage and death certificates recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual’s identity and linking him or her to a kin group. The permanent patronym was, in effect, the now long superseded precursor to modern photo-ID cards, passports, fingerprints, personal identification numbers, fingerprints, iris scans, and, finally DNA typing.

My suggestion here is to flip Scott’s script: Populations also judge states by metrics that are legible—to populations. Populations can see some things better than others, and they judge states according to their own uneven vision. This remains true, and may even become more true, in the ages of mass and social media.

It should be no surprise that states have begun to respond. They have begun to hide the things that matter, and to make more legible the things that are popularly associated with democracy, but that do not matter very much.

The media, of course, is a, if not the, crucial mechanism by which some aspects of the state become legible. I’d say from the inauguration through last night, media coverage of the Trump administration has probably exceeded my low expectations. (Some of this is perhaps an artifact of the jarring effect of administration’s belligerent and abusive treatment of journalists, and of course all these juicy leaks falling in their lap probably helps too.) The current moment is a reminder of how fleeting that could be.

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  • keta

    The media, of course, is a, if not the, crucial mechanism by which some aspects of the state become legible. I’d say from the inauguration through last night, media coverage of the Trump administration has probably exceeded my low expectations…The current moment is a reminder of how fleeting that could be.


    The thing we all need to keep in mind about big-time American media is this – nothing is more important to that entity than itself.

  • DAS

    The recentness of the adoption of the permanent patronym among Eastern European Jews is illustrated by the fact that a joke presumably dating from (just over a century after) the era when this adoption occurred is still remembered and told

    A certain La Fontaine is bragging about his distinguished heritage when an old man takes him aside and tells him: “I’m an old friend of your grandfather. The reason why your last name is La Fontaine is because when your grandfather came to this country, he decided to change his name from Schpritzwasser to La Fontaine. And the reason why your family had the last name of Schpritzwasser is that his grandfather was called Moishe der Pisher, so when it was time to take a last name, what else could he come up with but Schpritzwasser. So quit it with the putting on airs ‘La Fontaine'”.

    • Lurker

      In Finland, we have a number of surname traditions. The oldest is the Eastern Finnish one. The Savonians have been using surnames since middle ages, and this is most likely due to their historical mode of agriculture: slash-and-burn.

      When you are slashing and burning, the family will need a very large area, and will move around every half a dozen years or so.

      • Lurker

        Sorry for premature posting

        –This necessitates having a surname. The Eastern Finns have had surnames for a long time. Some of them are pre-Christian patronymics, and pre-Christian given names have not been used at least for 500 years. (Including the most common Finnish surname, Korhonen, which stems from “Korho”, a pre-Christian given name.)

        Western Finns had a more sedentary lifestyle, and got surnames only in the early 20th century. When my wife’s ancestor bought her family’s farmhouse in the mid-19th century, he changed his existing surname to correspond the name of the house, not vice versa. (That name is her maiden name.)

        Both methods were quite sufficient to tie people to the state. We Finns have had, originally as part of Sweden, an extremely thorough population bookkeeping, tracking every person regardless of age, gender or rank, since the 17th century. Surnames were by no means necessary for that.

        • Bloix

          Icelanders still don’t have last names. They just have patronymics. E.g., the prime minister is Bjarni Benediktsson. His father’s name is Benedikt Sveinsson.

    • Bloix

      Many Jews were assigned last names in the late 18th/early 19th C, after Prussia, Russia and Austria sliced up Poland between them, precisely so that they could be more easily taxed, drafted, and otherwise subjected to civil authority.
      Many of the newly-assigned names are what are now called compound ornamental names – arbitrary combinations of two words. The functionary just mixed and matched. E.g., Goldblum (golden flower), Goldberg (golden mountain), Goldstein (golden stone), Weinstein (wine stone), Eisenstein (iron stone), Eisenmann (iron man), Schwartzmann (black man), Weissmann (white man), Weissenthal (white valley), Rosenthal (rose valley), Rosenstern (rose star), Zilberstern (silver star), etc.

  • NewishLawyer

    I am facebook friends with Jason K and we have done some private chatting as well.

    He also announced that Trump’s victory in November caused him to join the Democratic Party. I wonder how this will temper his libertarianism.

    Whenever Jason discusses Democracy v. Authoritarianism on facebook, there is one commentator who wonders whether people really want to live in a Democracy. Or as he phrases it “Would you rather live in Singapore or India?”

    The Singaporean problem is an interesting one. My girlfriend is from Singapore and I’ve been twice. On the surface, it seems like it can be any other cosmopolitan city. You have hipster restaurants, a craft brew scene, artsy little neighborhoods. Last December, I went into a book store in one of these artsy neighborhoods that focused on promoting young Singaporean writers. A brief glance showed that these young Singaporean writers focused on many things that there American contemporaries would focus on including dealing with childhood/sexual abuse.

    There was a PSA campaign from a non-profit about the dangers of stigmatizing against criminal offenders and their families.

    But Singapore is not a democracy in the American sense and the PAP seems willing to do anything to permanently lock down a majority. Homosexuality is still illegal (though the law is rarely enforced, Jason K called this pre-Lawrence treatment). Singapore will also never legalize drugs.

    Sometimes my girlfriend is shocked and horrified by the anarchy of American attitudes towards leave me alone. She sees Fox News as irresponsible but also finds it irresponsible that you can walk into BevMo and buy a huge bottle of cheap vodka for ten bucks.

    • delazeur

      I think it’s absolutely true that a large portion of the global population, including some people who loudly proclaim their pride in living in a Western democracy, are not truly bought into the idea of democracy.

      It is interesting that many of us in the U.S. view representative democracy as the cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant society, while other countries that are not democratic manage to be just about as healthy and vibrant.

      • LeeEsq

        Liberal democracy is messy, inconsistent, and difficult. You have many different groups with a variety of mutually inconsistent ideas trying to live and govern together. If you have a total vision or just like order than a prosperous authoritarian government would be more to your liking.

      • SamChevre

        If you define democracy as “some large group of people vote, and that changes policy to policies they support”–very few people support that.

        If you define it as “some large group of people vote, and that changes policy to policies they support until those policies are voted out”–even fewer people support that (and no one on the left/liberal side has since the Truman administration).

      • NewishLawyer

        The best argument is that the soft authoriantarism/paternalism of Singapore can easily become hardline.

        But I think that a lot of Westerners are too biased in our image of authoritarianism. We imagine Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia but with perpetual bad weather and no fun. But this is not always true.

        And as LeeEsq says, Democracy is messy and comes with lots of compromises and disappointments. No one stays in power forever in a true representative government and you might really hate the opposition but be stuck with them. The only country that seems to function as a true representative democracy with largely continued one-party rule is Japan.

        • Porkman

          Singapore is a good argument for the supremacy of systems over people.

          Singaporean public servants are very well paid and they are under very strict rules about accepting any kind of gifts. They can’t be wined or dined without it being taxed as income and if they don’t report it, they will be fired.

          The Singaporean government takes the view that any gift to a legislator/civil servant should be treated as an attempt to purchase goods and services and the burden of proof is on that legislator/civil servant to prove that it isn’t.

    • LeeEsq

      Several years ago, I think I was still in college, I read something that referred to Singapore as the world’s only Confucian state. It seems to be a very accurate description.

      • Gabriel Ratchet

        William Gibson famously called it “Disneyland with the Death Penalty“.

        • NewishLawyer

          The essay was written 24 years ago and it shows. Singapore has actually undergone a lot of liberalization and state censorship is gone. See above about memoirs dealing with sexual abuse.

          Also sex work was always legal in Singapore and there is a building with the slang title of “4 floors of whores”

    • Porkman

      Singapore has really strict libel laws. This is good because it limits the “diabetes of Democracy” which is people searching for sensationalist sources that confirm their own filter bubbles.

      The “Clinton Rules” couldn’t happen in Singaporean newspapers or on Channel News Asia.

  • and of course all these juicy leaks falling in their lap probably helps too.

    How far news organizations go with the Precious Presidential Pivot narrative will indicate how much they value said leaks.

  • Derelict

    Populations also judge states by metrics that are legible—to populations. Populations can see some things better than others, and they judge states according to their own uneven vision. This remains true, and may even become more true, in the ages of mass and social media.

    The continuing crisis in Kansas would seem to refute this; the election of Donald Trump completely refutes this. Both of these things attest to the blindness of populations rather than anything that can be called “vision.”

    • I thought that was couched in a kind of wishful future tense.

    • Rob in CT

      A land of one-eyed men made a blind man king. Or something like that.

    • djw

      The continuing crisis in Kansas would seem to refute this; the election of Donald Trump completely refutes this.

      That doesn’t follow at all. The quoted statement isn’t making any claim about the soundness of the judgment.

    • ForkyMcSpoon

      Brownback was originally elected by a 31% margin. He was reelected with just a 4% margin in 2014, an otherwise pretty good year for Republicans.

      That’s not completely dispiriting…

  • AdamPShort

    At the risk of invoking the Atrios Rule that people who complain about what bloggers blog about should start their own shitty blog, I’d like to humbly request a bit more focus on the 2017 elections, especially in Virginia where we could potentially squander a wave election because of inertia and complacency in the VADP.

    This happened to the Republicans in Georgia in 1994 – Republicans outdrew Democrats by about 3:2 but the Republicans didn’t contest enough races to retake the state legislature.

    • djw

      Here’s what appears to be a regularly updated tally by someone connected to Virginia Democrats. The good news is there appears to be someone running in each district Clinton won, but it’s frustrating to see how many districts, including some that don’t appear to be that lopsided based on Warner’s vote total, have no Democratic candidates yet declared. Evidently control of the chamber would require retaining all current seats and going 17/17 in Clinton-won Republican districts. If I had any insights to offer on the candidate recruitment efforts, I would post about it, but I don’t.


      • Richard Gadsden

        I’ve never understood why someone doesn’t have a pool of carpetbaggers to go and run in any race that no-one else has filed for.

        At least that way people can get into the habit of voting for the Democratic Party.

        I do that for the Liberal Democrats in the UK – just fill up the ticket out of a desire to help the party.

        • AdamPShort

          There is a strict district residency requirement in Virginia, but I agree it should be the policy of the state party to have no blank races ever. It costs very little to get a candidate on the primary ballot in the VA House of Delegates, I think it’s 125 signatures and about $400.

      • AdamPShort

        Thanks, I had not seen this list; the Virginia Public Access Project keeps a similar list:


        VA Dem House Caucus went on Rachel Maddow and said there are only 22 blank races left, but they have not responded to inquiries about which races those are. I suppose they don’t want to declare on a candidate’s behalf, which makes some sense, but it is hard to recruit candidates when we don’t really know which races are blank.

        The main group working directly on recruitment for blank races is Activate Virginia:


        Va Dem House Caucus is also doing recruitment although it’s not clear how much they are doing at this point.

        It is still possible that we could have 100 Democrats for 100 Races, but time is getting a bit short.

  • wengler

    The current moment is a reminder of how fleeting that could be.

    It’s a reminder that corporate media doesn’t like being antagonistic to the President. They see their job as being an equilibrium between political stances, not partisans for the truth. So when Trump starts berating them, they are more than likely going to back down like a child in front of an abusive adult rather than fight back.

    As I quoted in a previous thread, Trump attacked the media viciously in the speech when he announced his office of tracking Jewillegal immigrant violence. I don’t think the pundit class listens to words though, so I doubt they caught it.

  • LeeEsq

    Like other people on this blog, I find the media’s reluctance to do its job about Trump or any other politician infuriating. At the same time, I wonder whether a media who did its job would have any real effect. Most people avoid or lightly skim the news at best. The idea that if the media did its job, we would have better politics seems almost religious at times. If few people watch the news, it really doesn’t matter.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      well, no, wait. If the news is mostly background noise for people, it still makes a difference what that noise is. The noise seeps into the damnedest places- my niece and nephew got me a copy of “MAD” magazine for Christmas. I hadn’t read a copy in *years*. It was amazing and depressing to see how thoroughly the “Benghazi” “e-mails” and “corrupt Clinton Foundation” memes had soaked into their writing as if they were all undeniable truths

    • djw

      What is the basis for your assumption/conclusion that consumption of political news is declining? All the indicators I’ve seen are that it’s way up in the last year, even relative to normal bumps with a campaign and new administration.

      • LeeEsq

        From what I’ve read, Fox News has the largest number of viewers of all the 24 hours news networks and they are somewhere in the two to three million range. The average age is around 65. The other 24 hours news networks have smaller audiences who tend to be just as old.

        • djw

          The long-run decline of television news is about the diversification of media sources, not declining consumption overall. (At least not necessarily. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t assume anything without some data.)Short-run, TV news and National newspapers are seeing a big spike.

  • MDrew

    Wow. Jason Kuznicki, huh?

    I’ve gone a few rounds with that dude.

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