|The JC’S favourite Big Ideas™
I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their land-holdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to “translate” what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.
In the Times of 19 January 2021 there were reports of schools, ahead of OFSTED inspections, identifying unruly pupils and taking them out on long walks (cunningly branded as “alternative PE”) or, what is regarded as worse, locking them in the squash courts for the duration of the OFSTED site visit. Now leaving aside for a moment that in the JC’s day we unruly ones were escorted to the squash courts to be caned, not just locked in — so the modern-day unruly should thank their lucky stars — this strikes us as an interesting, and inevitable consequence of the OFSTED inspection regime in the first place, which is an archetypal attempt at legibility.
The dynamics surrounding a given educational institution are surely unique, and complex: a function of geographical, geopolitical, sociological factors. Yet the government has no choice but to measure, compare and rate them on a simplified basis, on irregular short visits.
Scott’s idea of the “illegible relationships” between people in an economy resonates with David Graeber’s idea of “everyday communism” — a basic social glue without which rationalist economic transactions could hardly take place, and Joe Norman’s observation that the informal interactions in a system are what account for 80% of its effectiveness.