“Counting to three” on planning and democracy

I have an interview up with Jess Gilbert today on Edge Effects about his new book, Planning Democracy. It’s probably evident from the interview how sympathetic I am to Jess’s argument that, when we look closely at the work of federal planners of the 1930s, what we find is not a monomaniacal dream of social order drafted by élite technicians in thrall of state power but rather a genuine attempt to make the sought-after American values of participatory democracy and economic opportunity workable under twentieth-century conditions. Jess’s close reading of the “agrarian intellectuals” working in the USDA in the late thirties—Henry A. Wallace, M. L. Wilson, Howard Tolley, L. C. Gray, and Bushrod Allen—proves just how foundational democratic participation was for this vision of community planning. Any book that can prompt James C. Scott to acknowledge the “genuine commitment of these men to local, participatory planning” when referring to New Deal federal bureaucrats is a remarkable achievement indeed. For anyone who is interested in understanding the relationship between land planning and democratic politics, the book is unquestionably a must-read, and I expect it will do important work in reframing the predominant historical narrative of the New Deal.

The one place where I part ways slightly with Jess is in his attempt to draw a hard line between the “agrarian intellectuals” and the “urban liberals” working together in the New Deal USDA. He coins the wonderful term “low modernism” to twist Scott’s critique of “high modernism” and argue that technocratic planning can be invoked to serve participatory, localized ends. But he applies this term exclusively to the “agrarians,” who, he suggests, rested their commitment to small farmers partly on their own personal upbringings as “Midwestern farm boys.” In doing so, he makes the urban liberals almost into a sort of sacrificial offering to Scott: “the urban liberals,” he writes, typified in the arch-planner Rexford Tugwell, “deserve the high-modernist label much more than the midwestern agrarian intellectuals” (p. 75).

I’m not sure I fully agree—and I’m not even sure if Jess himself really agrees. After offering up Tugwell and his allies as “high modernists,” he backpedals the distinction somewhat by noting that Scott, in Seeing Like a State, very often relies on the phrase “authoritarian high modernism” to describe the power-hungry planners whose “schemes to improve the human condition failed.” That “authoritarian” adjective isn’t fair to apply to the New Dealers, Jess argues, since even the urban liberals exhibited a “commitment to … empowering the poor and the dispossessed” which “revealed them as advocates of democratization” (p. 78). Consequently, he settles on three classifications: the “low modernists” led by Wallace, Wilson, and Tolley; the “democratizing high modernists” led by Tugwell, and, finally, the “authoritarian high modernists” of the original Scott variety.

Which means that Scott is left with the rump argument that authoritarian high modernists are authoritarian. Well— sure! I don’t mean to be flippant here; it’s not for nothing that Scott’s book is widely influential. He demonstrates—convincingly, I believe—that rational state planning became, in many cases, a pretext to force modernization down the throats of the poor, and especially rural minorities, in ways that were advantageous for élite groups in postcolonial nations. Scott’s a wonderful anthropologist, and his work in Zomia is beautifully developed.

But the attempt to interpolate from postcolonial, multiethnic southeast Asia to situations as far afield as Bolshevik Russia and the New Deal United States is— well, it’s rather high modernist! This has always been, in my view, the great weakness of Scott’s formula: I’ve never been convinced that Seeing Like A State makes a persuasive logical leap from high modernism can be authoritarian to high modernism is inherently authoritarian. For example, in his “pantheon or Hall of Fame of high-modernist figures,” Scott includes both Le Corbusier and Robert Moses (p. 88). Moses in particular has come to stand as the American exemplar of expert planning running roughshod over local communities, largely on account of the of the near cultlike popularity of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But Moses despised many of the architectural modernsits in the Corbusier tradition, fuming in one New York Times Magazine article from 1944 that Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Eric Mendelsohn were representatives of an insular, expert élite, with “their own curious lingo and double talk, their cabalistic writings, secret passwords, and abracadabras.”1 These “long-haired planners,” Moses complained, were trying to superimpose European rationalism on American pragmatism. He went on to dismiss Tugwell’s work as head of the New York City Planning Comission, calling him an “itinerant carpetbag expert” whose grand schemes amounted to nothing more than “splashing at a ten-league canvas with brushes of a comet’s hair”—a turn of phrase which might easily find a comfortable second home in Scott’s critique of the high modernsits!

To return to Planning Democracy, the core point is that there are many possible ideological combinations between expert planning, rationalistic technocracy, and the ideals of democracy—not just the single authoritarian formula offered under Scott’s original categorization. Jess’s distinction between the agrarians and the urban liberals does reflect a real ideological split between those two groups. It’s one, however, where the Tugwell camp often comes out looking like the side more closely committed to a full-throated democratic politics. Jess himself notes in a 2009 article that Tugwell’s Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, were the “most class-conscious and least racist” of the New Deal agricultural agencies.2 The Tugwell faction at its most “high modernist”—that is, at the times when it was most suspicious of local control and most insistent in the use of centralized federal power—was driven by a belief that such a move was necessary to realize true democracy. Tugwell felt that “grass-roots decisions are not likely to be democratic, i.e. to result from the participation of all concerned,” and, consequently, that “if most farm communities are to have democratic administration they will have to import it from Washington.”3

Buried in one of the footnotes of Planning Democracy, Jess offers the following anecdote:

As the eminent peasant scholar Teodor Shanin told me decades ago, too many social theorists can count only to two: this or that. By this measure, the agrarian intellectuals could count to three. (p. 327, note 33)

Here, I think, is the very nut of the issue. Planning and democracy are not a this and a that; rational technocracy and folk culture are not a this and a that; centralization and decentralization are not a this and a that. If we keep counting, we can better understand the historical moments where such ideals were not seen as contradictory at all, but instead dependent on each other.

Editor’s note: A formatting error clipped the fourth paragraph of this post in its original form. It’s been corrected. 4:00 PM, 2015-04-02

  1. Robert Moses, “Mr. Moses dissects the ‘long-haired planners,'” The New York Times Magazine June 25, 1944, pp. 16–19.
  2. Gilbert, “Democratizing states and the uses of history,” Rural Sociology 74 (no. 1, 2009), p. 14.
  3. Tugwell and Banfield, “Grass roots democracy—Myth or reality?” Public Administration Review 10 (no. 1, Winter, 1950), pp. 47-55. See also my own post expanding on this.