Authoritarian High Modernism Of The Self

Author James C. Scott, in his very well-known book, Seeing Like A State1, introduces the concept of “authoritarian high modernism” to explain common threads between various ideas and schemes that were supposed to make life better, but ended up doing just the opposite. High Modernism is his term for the deep belief that society and people can be made better by thorough application of science and reason, that once we embrace the insights brought to us by empiricism, the scientific method, and technological progress, suffering on a societal level will greatly diminish, if not vanish entirely. However, some may resist the noble quest towards progress, towards a society without suffering, and stick to their old ways. But if we want to raise everyone up from their misery, force will be needed, and those stuck in their ways will thank us later. This is the authoritarian part.

You can see already how this can (and did) go severely wrong. What was supposed to be objective good, proven by science and brought forth by the state, was in fact neither objective, nor good. To give a concrete example, agrarian reforms failed, and millions starved, because the plans for them were cooked up in a Chicago hotel bedroom2, and failed to account for much of the reality on the ground. Plans and ideas, schematics and processes that had been vetted thoroughly in… an environment entirely different from where it was supposed to be applied. With violated assumptions, a plan that barely worked to begin with stopped working entirely. Many, many people starved in the process of collectivisation.

But whenever this inconvenient truth was pointed out to those that had put together the plan of collectivisation, the fault was instead pushed to those working on the collectivised farms. The plan was correct, but the execution was the downfall. If only they did things right, followed the genius plan, then nobody would starve and everyone would get to share the fruits of an ideal, science-driven and empirically tested society. But until they would see that, they would have to be forced to do what they needed to do. And so, even the seed grain was confiscated, as those on the farms were ‘hiding’ the outputs they were supposed to send back (because, you see, the plan worked all along).

And this is, in my opinion, the greatest fault of authoritarian high modernism. It is so damned certain of what is the right thing to do, even when that is in flat contradiction to what is happening, and what they can see happening. They have arrived at The Truth™, and now that they have found what is true, only what is untrue and irrelevant remains.

Anyways, I think I may have been subjecting myself to an analogue of this, just instead of millions of people being affected, it’s myself, doing much the same to also myself.

When you mostly work with your head, trying to piece together how certain things behave and change over time, optimising processes and their applications, it’s not a big leap to also apply a similar process to yourself, as another process and application to optimise. You figure out that there are some ways of doing things that are better than others, you remove the less effective ones, and have gained a bunch of resources and time. You make a plan for how to prepare for a party, and you execute that. The making of the plan took a bunch of work off your shoulders in remembering and accounting for various problems.

This leads to two things, one is more energy and free time (because you’re doing less work, because you are using more effective processes) and the other is an increased belief in the process as being good and leading to good outcomes. After all, the empirical method is on your side here. You tried something, the results were good, you tried more of it, the results continued to be good.

The continued build-up of belief that various processes of planning and execution leads in part, to tool fetishisation, where people are much less focused on what they originally intended to do with these tools (accomplish concrete goals), and instead focus more on the tools themselves. In the past this has been affectionately labelled “productivity pr0n”3, today that more takes forms of people spending endless amounts of time customising their Personal Knowledge Bases™ and writing about the practices of note-taking over actually doing much with them.

The free time and energy that is saved by use of more effective processes is, of course, in part used to accomplish more of the things we want to accomplish. This leads, ideally and partially, to an increased enjoyment of life. Probably more social recognition, maybe more monetary means. This, again, reinforces the notion that this meta-process of treating oneself as a process to be optimised is a good idea, it has brought you all of this extra time and energy you can now use to do more projects and realise more ideas!

Until something, for some reason, causes a drop in your energy levels. Maybe you got sick, maybe the seasons changed and your sleep is worse, maybe a relationship isn’t going super well and it sits in your head, maybe you suffer from depression. The execution of plans becomes harder, but remains doable. The application of new tools and processes has stopped providing big leaps and improvements, as their adaptation costs energy and the differences are no longer as big as “no tools” to “a decent tool”. Life becomes more strenuous. While improved processes minus less energy averages out to approximately the before-tools state, there are now more projects. You fight through, and end up coping alright.

If there is now the misfortune of energy or time levels dropping further, things start getting a bit dicey. With a sudden loss of free time, that’s something where you can adjust for it, mentally: You see that there is now a bunch of time taken up on your calendar, and obviously you can’t do things then, so proportionally reduced output is to be expected.4 Energy drops are more tricky, in that they have less objective traces. You just kinda feel worse.

When that change is large enough, there is now a problem. We have, on the one hand, the process we know is good. We have tried and succeeded in plenty of projects using the process. On the other hand, we have declining results. Depending on how hard you believe in the importance of tools and process5, and good you are at self-reflection and introspection, you can either come to the conclusion that, #1, there is something you missed, because what used to add up isn’t anymore, or #2, that if you just executed the plan better, the problems would go away.

In my anecdotal experience, people that have arrived at “tools and processes are important and considerable time should be invested into them”, and also “applying those to myself is a good thing”, rarely end up at option #1. Instead, a common thread tends to be that we are somehow lying to ourselves about what we can and can’t do, about what we should be able to do. Plans thrown together quickly are assumed to be good, because the plans were always good.6 Instead we are the problem, our execution is the problem. We are certain of what’s correct and true, so whatever’s left must contain the problem. Unfortunately, what’s left and contains the problem is ourselves.

In the quest for making the tools work through execution, we optimise further, and frequently, we optimise the joy and fun out of execution. Much like a city isn’t a tree7, a human isn’t a computer that doesn’t mind having unnecessary tasks removed. In our quest for output, we often force ourselves to act like computers, and end up miserable, and still feeling guilty and ashamed that we aren’t doing ‘enough’.

That is, in a nutshell, what I think I’ve been doing to myself, in at least parts. I used to be far worse about it, but still, even the reduced form of it has left its marks, and I’m tired. Yet, my lists for today show me that I still need to make dinner, because I need to eat, and prepare the flat for tomorrow, where I will go back to work and optimise processes and applications.

  1. It is also a very good book. 

  2. I learned of this story originally through Seeing Like A State, though in googling a better citation I found Every Farm A Factory from Deborah Fitzgerald, it looks fascinating, and has instantly wandered on my reading list. 

  3. Which I was also caught in for a long while. I even had the stack of 50 paper folders at a time when that really didn’t help me much. But it did bring me joy when that was also scarce, so it was not exactly a complete loss, albeit for unintended reasons. 

  4. There’s another trap here, in that the expectation is for proportionally reduced output. More often than not, something that unexpectedly squats a bunch of your free time is also very draining, leading to energy levels in the remaining free time to crater as well. 

  5. I, for one, believe that tools and processes are incredibly important. But, having ADHD, my brain isn’t much good without tools and processes, so I expect my judgement to be a bit warped. 

  6. Here’s another fun parallel. In many examples of Scott’s book, the pilot studies worked. But they worked because they were being made to work by the people on the ground, because testing the idea behind the project stopped being relevant, compared to reporting good results to the person that controlled your life’s trajectory. People on the ground of these pilot projects adopted the flawed plan to the local environment as best they could, often using far more resources than the actual plan foresaw for the returns. In the personal angle, you can make any plan work by using more energy on them than they are worth, but end result is what sticks with you: Making a plan worked, let’s do more of that. No matter if it wouldn’t have worked under normal circumstances. 

  7. This is a very good, rather short paper by Christopher Alexander that I highly recommend reading. Here’s a PDF