For something I am working on, I have been thinking about agents of change. When working with the John Smith Trust over many years and on fellowships since then, I had become comfortable with the idea that individual agents of change are the “unit” that one can work with best from the outside. I mean this with respect to conflict affected and post conflict, especially post genocidal, states in particular. But perhaps the focus of what I have been doing with these individuals, human rights, governance, the rule of law, on the one hand, and recovery, truth and reconciliation and transitional justice, on the other has been too limited. What really makes a difference is a job, a home, a predictable future, enough green energy, safe food and clean water and a sense that your children will be a little better off than you have been. And it is economics that makes those things possible so the real debate is how to build a sustainable middle class/secure working class that does not slip back periodically into an insecure under class. Which took me back to this very old paper on how state modernisation projects fail. But if they fail, what is the alternative? The developmental state or private investment? I think the conference this paper was given at was in the early 2000s on the theme projects to change peoples’ minds…..apologies that no all the references are complete

Seeing like a citizen: the experience of mind changing projects

Brian Brivati

In this paper I want to consider the theme of the conference from the perspective of the people whose minds politicians tried to change. My starting point is James Scott’s study, Thinking like a state. How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed.[1] I suggest areas in which Scott’s analysis might be extended to consider modernisation projects in democratic regimes and explore if Scott’s ideas tell us anything about the major vehicle of mind changing in totalitarian regimes: the camps and the gulag. I want to begin from the premise that all political projects are equal. We should differentiate between them only when evidence demonstrates that they impact on peoples’ lives differently. This leaves open the possibility that an undemocratic regime might introduce projects that have a positive impact on the lives of ordinary people and that democratic regimes might introduce projects that have a negative impact. This paper will consider examples of this negative impact, especially from the perspective of assessing if there are differences between mind changing or modernisation projects that are promoted by right wing democratic governments and those that are instigated by left wing democratic governments.  My measure of “quality” is suggested by Kant’s famous construction: People should be treated as the end and not the means.[2]

In Seeing like a State, Scott explores the failure of a range of projects from the high modernism of Lenin, as it set out to transform a society through revolution, to schemes for planning and building model cities. He asks himself why “so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry”? He suggests that these projects were embarked upon because of a combination of four factors:

  1. The administrative ordering of nature and society – the things the state does to make society legible and ultimately governable.
  2. The arrogant assumptions embedded in high-modernist ideology about the possibility of a science of society and of politics.
  3. When the mechanism of governance are combined with the will to govern that high modernism creates, you have a potentially lethal combination in the authoritarian state.
  4. In turn this shrinks civil society to such an extent that the intermediaries between the state and the citizen are removed.

He summarises these conditions thus: “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the levelled social terrain on which to build”.[3] Once launched these projects fail, according to Scott, because the modernisers “regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were, and at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.”[4] In particular the high modernists tried to replace “organic” patterns of organisation with rationalised ones:

…[I]n each case, the necessarily thin, schematic model of social organisation and production animating the planning was inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a successful social order. By themselves, the simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.[5]

By ignoring the informal arrangements that underpin social intercourse, by replacing local knowledge and expertise with abstract theory and by ignoring the existing shape and texture of society, the modernisers failed. Despite this failure Scott retains a feeling for the motivation of the planners:

What conservatives like Oakeshott miss, I think, is that high modernism has  a natural appeal for an intelligentsia and a people who may have ample reason to hold the past in contempt. Revolutionaries have had every reason to despise the feudal, poverty-stricken, inegalitarian past that they hoped to banish forever, and sometimes they have also had a reason to suspect that immediate democracy would simply bring back the old order. Postindependence leaders in the nonindustrial world (occasionally revolutionary leaders themselves) could not be faulted for hating their past of colonial domination and economic stagnation, nor could they be faulted for wasting no time or democratic sentimentality on creating a people that they could be proud of. Understanding the history and logic of their commitment to high-modernist goals, however, does not permit us to overlook the enormous damage that their convictions entailed when combined with authoritarian state power.[6]

I think the really telling phrase here is: “nor could they be faulted for wasting no time or democratic sentimentality on creating a people that they could be proud of”. It points to a tension in Scott’s work which is made obvious by two omissions from his study. First, he does not engage with the camps as the site of a mind changing project to “improve” the human condition. If he did so his critique of the failure of collectivisation would have had to be very different. Second, he does not consider modernisation projects instigated by liberal democracies. Though his work is infused with a compassion for the victims of modernising projects, Scott is not concerned with considering the experience of schemes to improve the human condition from the perspective of the human being to be improved. By suggesting ways in which Scott’s critique might be extended to the camps and to democracies, I also want to suggest ways in which we might see like a citizen, rather than a state.

Before proceeding further I want to pause on the word “modernisation”. I reject both the notion that only left-progressive political projects can be seen as modernising and the idea that modernisation is by definition something inherently good; something that is synonymous with human advancement. We need to be conscious of the value judgements we bring to the assessment of the success or failure of a particular project. To put it very crudely: there are good regimes and bad regimes, there are good governments and bad governments. Often this implicit value system is graded, moving from the uncontested to the contested something like this:

Uncontested Bad     ——-Contested———Uncontested Good

Right-wing totalitarian regimes

            Left-wing totalitarian regimes

                        Monarchical authoritarian regimes

                                    Republican authoritarian regimes

                                                Partial democracies based on land suffrage

                                                            Partial based on property

                                                                        Partial democracies based on gender

Universal suffrage

This “grading” of governments, extends into the “grading” of victims. Political projects launched by these different regimes are, in their different ways, trying to create a perfect citizen. That perfect citizen might be created by enslaving large numbers of other citizens, indeed, by denying their right to citizenship because of their race or class; or the perfect citizen might be created by a project of mass education and social housing. Both kinds of projects can be born of the set of factors  Scott describes as necessary for large scale projects to be launched and both kinds of projects create victims. Because of the grading of political regimes we frequently see an unequal regard for the victims. Indeed, I suggest we see it in the way Scott presents the democratic costs of authoritarian action in post-colonial governments, quoted above. But more than this we need to explore the kind of totalitarian modernisation projects that set out to change people, projects in which the raw material of the political process becomes life itself. In these cases what does failure in the terms of the project itself mean?

The contrast between the experience of modernisation under Hitler and modernisation under Stalin will now be considered: did these modernisation projects fail for the kinds of reasons Scott suggests? We need to enter the camp and the gulag to engage with the question of whether there is a difference between left and right with respect to both intention of the perpetrators and the meaning of the “victim” in relation to the totalitarian projects. The camp is the quintessence of totalitarianism in that the society is run according to the same, though somewhat diluted, principles as run the camp.[7]  Can the Soviet system be defended on the grounds that the class basis of its persecution actually entailed the attempt to change minds, whereas the Nazis regime based its system of terror on race in which annihilation was the only possible outcome? If so, then we must accept that victims are not equal.

Scott engages the question of collectivisation and lays out the flaws inherent in the notion of the vanguard party and compares Lenin’s schemes to a ocean liner:

The revolution ousts the bourgeoisie from the bridge of the “ocean liner”, installs the vanguard party, and sets a new course, but the jobs of the vast crew are unchanged. Lenin’s picture of the technical structure, it should be noted, is entirely static. The forms of production are either set or, if they do change, the changes cannot require skills of a different order. [8]

In Lenin’s own words from State and Revolution, he lays out what he calls the  “chillingly Orwellian” result:

In regard to…the importance of individual dictatorial powers it must be said that large-scale machine industry – which is precisely…the foundation of socialism [-]…calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people…But how can strict unity be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one…We must learn to combine the public-meeting democracy of the working people…with iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader, while at work…Escape from this national accounting will inevitably become more difficult… and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment… that very soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of social life in common will have become a habit.[9]

The mechanism for enforcing this obedience, and hence the main location of the Soviet mind changing project, was the gulag. In contrast Rosa Luxemburg argued that “The creation of socialism was a new territory. A thousand problems – only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts.”[10]  She went on to predict the failure of Lenin’s model:

But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution…Public life gradually falls asleep…In reality only a dozen outstanding heads [party leaders] do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom then, a clique affair,…a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense.[11]

The consequence of this model was the death of many millions but in the same way that Scott can see the point of the suffering that post-colonial leaders imposed on their peoples, so Scott can see the point of the suffering that Lenin and, by implication, Stalin later imposed:

Collectivization proved a rough-and-ready instrument for the twin goals of traditional statecraft: appropriation and political control. Although the Soviet kolkhoz may have failed badly, it served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping pattern, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside.[12]

Others of course go much further in their defence of collectivisation and of Lenin’s successor, Stalin. The basis of the defence of Stalin and the assaults that are launched on those who attack the high modernism of Lenin and Stalin is not some arcane topic of the cold war. Bizarrely a letter appeared in the New Statesman on 17 June 2002 from Peter Kardia of the Stalin Society justifying what it called the “urgent, ruthless and rapid industrialisation programmes pushed through by Stalin” as the means by which the Nazis were defeated and the world was kept free. Putting to one side the historical inaccuracy of this picture, the question must be would the editor of the New Statesman have published a letter from someone from the Hitler Society defending the rearmament programme of the 1930s on the grounds that it helped with unemployment. The point is that the victims of Stalin do not have a contemporary constituency to defend their memory from such abuse, there is no lobby that attacks organisations for using Stalin’s image in political advertising.

Letters like this are published for the same reason that Orwell was attacked for telling the truth about Spain: there is a single left and to attack a part of it is to play in the hands of its opponents.[13] This left is united by the “good intentions” of creating a better society, even if this goes wrong sometimes. The loyalty of people on the left should be to the overall project. Thus, and very crudely, the left wing totalitarian project is to be preferred to the right wing one because the intentions of the Bolsheviks were “better” than the intentions of the Nazis, though they shared many of the same methods.

The heart of the method of changing peoples’ minds under the two totalitarian regimes was the camp. We can differentiate between kinds of camps – the extermination camps produced ash, concentration camps killed incidentally rather than with a purpose. Todorov argues that: “The real hell [of the camps] is more effective than death itself in the implementation of state terror”.[14] To which one might reply that nevertheless the purpose of extermination camps was not terror, the concentration camps were all that was necessary for that – but annihilation. Not changing minds but destroying them. This was different to the nature and purpose of the gulag as a camp system. The problem is that the modernisation project instituted by Stalin was also not encompassed by the concentration camp or gulag system alone. There was also a system of annihilation; there was “execution by hunger” in the Ukraine for example.[15] This was extermination as state modernisation policy. But there was also the liquidation of the large sections of the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the aristocracy under Lenin in the civil war and throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Inherent in much writing on the Russian Revolution by academic historians and political scientists is the systematic undermining of the value of the lives of these people.[16] They are portrayed as White Russians, as plutocrats and anti-revolutionaries who would have murdered all the Bolsheviks given the chance. There is an acceptance here that the ownership of some land or some learning or indeed the articulation of liberal positions that were opposed to the Bolsheviks negate the humanity of the individuals concerned and make them less worthy of “victim” status. The barbaric refrain that justifing this position being “you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”. Such an idea would never be entertained if the “crime” of these individuals had been a racial rather than a class one. What should be even more disturbing is the prolonged condemnation of individuals like George Orwell who pointed out the comparability of the slaughter and was attacked by figures on the left for doing so. Even those like Raymond Williams who eventually abandoned Stalin, never forgave Orwell.

The overall point is that if we are to condemn state murder then we need to be consistent. If we can construct a story for ourselves in which the murder of the Tsar’s children was justified then we can construct a story for ourselves in which the murder of Elie Wiesel’s younger sister was as well. The class basis of genocide is no more valid than the race basis of genocide simply because people say the perpetrators intentions were in the end better. Did the murder of the Tsar’s children mean something more because it was based on a class analysis rather than a race analysis? Was it more justified to starve up to seven million Ukraine’s than to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto? It seems to me that the great terror and the starvation of the Ukraine are as divorced from a defensible form of modernisation or mind changing project as the war against the Jews. I am not actually suggesting, however, that they are therefore the same. In fact, by equating them, we see better their differences. The war against the Jews was unique in the sense that it was the attempt to destroy an entire people who did not constitute any material threat to the regime but who were portrayed as doing so. Stalin’s enemies were similarly no real threat but were presented as such.  The difference is that the murder could stop before all the identified victim groups had been killed because the purpose of the murder was formally to create collectivisation and informally to sustain the terror necessary to perpetuate the leadership of Stalin, but not the regime itself. The killing gradually slowed down, though the brutality of the camp system remained through to the 1960s and beyond. The descriptions of the camp system in Bulgaria, contained in Voices from the Gulag, do not suggest a regime far removed from the non-extermination parts of Auschwitz.[17] In contrast, the murder of the Jews and the other victim groups was in support of a modernisation project that had at its heart the creation of a racial state and therefore their murder was intrinsic to the project.[18] At some point the kulaks said “okay we will collectivise” and eventually the killing stopped. The Jews could not say, “okay we will stop being Jews”. The point of the murder was the murder and it was the murder that tied the regime together.[19]

The explanation for this is that there is a continuum between the left project in the 20th century and the Russian Revolution because both were inspired by the same kind of class analysis. To admit that there was a pathological violence inherent in the revolutionary class analysis as it was realised in Russia is presented as being a betrayal of the revolution and the possible realisation of the classless society or the socialist utopia. Todorov sums up the contemporary articulation of the difference:

In 1932-1933, Stalin deliberately brought death by starvation and deprivation to six million peasants in the Ukraine, Southern Russia and Kazakhstan, a figure similar to the number of Jews put to death by Hitler. What sets the Holocaust apart is this crime’s place in overall Nazis politics: putting people to death became an end, not a means. There was no Treblinka in the communist system. What came closest to it were the systematic extermination of the elite of certain “enemy” nations, as in the case of twenty-two thousand Polish officers in 1940; but such facts remain marginal in communism, whereas they are central for the Nazis. In Soviet camps, death was not a goal but either a punishment and means to terror, or else an insignificant loss and accident. Death took on no particular meaning there; life simply no longer had any value.[20]

Here again we seem to be making the same kind of high modernist mistake as Scott suggestions the modernisers are. We seem to saying that though many millions died it was, in the end, worth it. The question is, was it worth it for the victims?

In Hollywood movies human beings are killed with ease: a simple blow or a single bullet. In reality, if you ever see real pictures of the aftermath of violence, it is striking how physically difficult it is to kill people without military hardware. It actually, as accounts from Rwanda show,[21] takes many blows with a machete to kill, though a single blow can induce death by heart attack. The human body is physically resilient. The human mind is also tough. Todorov[22] quoting Primo Levi and many others, shows that the ambition of the Nazis to change minds by destroying will was sometimes successful merely in the experience of the journey to the camp or sometimes in the experience of arriving at the camp. But that also it often failed. That dignity could survive, that morality could retain a kind of hold on people even when they faced starvation that a spark of human spirit remained throughout the experience for some of the people. In many ways we should take comfort from this. In both forms of totalitarianism the objective of total subjection was not achieved. In other words, these projects failed in their own terms.

I do not want to over stress this point. When you die, you die. But what if you do not die? This is Solzhenitsyn’s dilemma: the only place in which a person can think what they like in a totalitarian state, in which, paradoxically, they are freer from the mind changing and controlling agenda of the regime, is in prison, in the gulag. Are there differences between the experience of someone who retains the ability to think for themselves, whose mind has not been dulled or destroyed by the experience of persecution, between the gulag and the camp. In considering this question we come across one of the central problems of the study of the camp, a problem that Primo Levi identified in his last book.[23] Our knowledge comes primarily from the survivors, from those who had the mental or physical strength and luck not to be selected or in the Soviet Union, simply to live out their sentences or the regime itself. Levi worried that his representation of Auschwitz was warped because of his privileged position, his experience, even his ability to think, was not typical of the victims of the camp and therefore his account was not representative.[24] Despite his own reservations we can accept Levi’s account, and many others, as evidence that the ability to think remained an island of refuge in the camps of both kinds of regime. Even the bleak stories Tadeusz Borowski show a sense of surviving moral life.[25] Two examples will make the point:

Primo Levi  – the water from the pipe

A water pipe? I took a chance and tried to open it…A few drops came out; they had no odour. I caught them on my fingers: it really seemed water. I had no receptacle; the drops came out slowly, without pressure: the pipe must be only half full, perhaps less. I stretched out on the floor with my mouth under the spigot, without trying to open it further…A litre, perhaps not event that. I could drink all it immediately, it would have been the safest way. Or save it a bit for the next day. Or share half of it with Alberto. Or reveal the secret to the whole squad. I chose the third path, that of selfishness extended to the one who is closest to you, which in distant times a friend of mine appropriately called us-ism. We drank all the water, in small, avaricious gulps, changing places under the spigot, only the two of us. On the sly; but on the march back to the camp at my side I found Daniele, all grey with cement dust, his lips cracked and his eyes feverish, and I felt guilty. I exchanged a look with Alberto, we understood each other immediately and hoped nobody had seen us. But Daniele had caught a glimpse of us in that strange position… and had suspected something, and then had guessed. He curtly told me so many months later, in White Russia, after the liberation: why the two of you and not I? It was the “civilian” moral code surfacing again.[26]

During the eighteen years of [captivity] I many times found myself face to face with death. I never got used to the experience. Each time I felt the same terror and tried frantically and incoherently to find a way out. And each time my healthy, indestructible organism found a way to survive…At first, escape from death in the forest of Elgen came by way of cranberries. This sour fruit did not ripen here in the summer as it does at home, but came to fruit after its ten months sleep beneath the snow, when it first saw the pale sunlight. It was a May morning, as I was crouching close to the ground by a little spring in order to cut branches of a felled larch, that I first noticed through the mist that fragile miracle of nature, a sprig of cranberry, emerging from the melting ice. It bore five or six berries of such a deep red that they looked almost black, and they were so tender that the sight of them was deeply moving. Like all over-ripe fruit, they fell at a touch. If you tried to pick them they squashed, but you could lie on the ground and suck them straight through your chapped lips and crush them between your tongue and your palate. They had an indescribable flavour, something like that of old wine. In no way could it be compared to the acid taste of our home bilberries. The intoxicating aroma was that of victory over suffering and winter. I ate the two sprigs myself and it was only when I saw a third that I remembered my fellow creatures and called excitedly to Galya…From that day onward we went to the forest not in despair but in hope.[27]

It is probably the case that the regime in the gulag allowed a greater scope of moral and intellectual freedom for a larger proportion of people than the regime of the German camp system. Though with respect to both there was a wide variety of experience in different camps at different times. Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, describes how a group of prisoners transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau responded to the new camp regime.

One evening when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to hurry outside to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset.[28]

Does the action of these people in these situations signify the failure of the totalitarian projects to change minds, and if one mind is not changed, does that mean the projects have failed? Let us return to Seeing like a State. To what extent can Scott’s model account for the genesis and failure of these projects. As far as the combination of factors that contribute to creation of the project the case is made by Scott himself with respect to the Soviet Union but not with respect to the camps only the process of collectivisation. While he does not consider the Nazis regime, much of his analysis can be extended to it. Failure however cannot be explained in the way Scott does. By side stepping the gulag system and focussing on the form of collectivisation, Scott dodges the real engine of mind changing in both systems. What we have to consider here is the meaning of victory. In the Soviet case victory was the perpetuation of the Stalinist regime and the creation of a new mentality that became a habit enforced by violence. Totalitarianism is not a system of total control any more than democracy is system of perfect representation. Both are describing the aspiration of the regime and both fall short. In that sense the Soviet system failed. In another sense it also failed and for a reason that echoes Scott’s notion of metis. The Soviet system could not encompass the private world of all who became prisoners of the regime. So long as some, like Eugenia Ginzburg, were able to bear witness and so long as much of the apparatus of the regime, even within the gulag system itself, was subverted by a black market of goods, letters and conversations, the camp system could not completely triumph. Similarly, in the Nazis camps like Auschwitz, the black market, what Borowski calls “organising” was a necessary part of keeping the camp functioning and it was never controlled.[29]  In the sense of mental freedom, some survived. In a broader sense the Jewish race also survived, created the state of Israel and a reconstructed Germany was democratised. But the cost was such that it is extremely problematic to speak of a “defeat” or a “victory”, of success or of failure.


If we turn from the camps to democracy, how useful are Scott’s notions for explaining the failure of democratic projects of modernisation. In a number of biographical works of social democratic politicians that I have done over the last ten years or so, I have very rarely encountered the form of self doubt that says: do people actually want this? The kinds of politicians I have been writing about have tended to assume, some like Nye Bevan[30] with considerable justification, some like Woodrow Wyatt[31] with none, that they had a special kind of insight into what their natural constituency wanted. They all, with the exception of Gordon Brown,[32] shared a dislike or indifference to the contemporary paraphernalia of focus groups, policy option testing, opinion polling and deliberative policy formation. Even Brown, though relaxed with the use of these techniques, is an old fashioned politician in that he has a working model for the way the world should be and is striving to move it in that direction. He hopes that the electorate will follow; he is not following the electorate. My earlier subjects, Hugh Gaitskell[33] and Ernest Bevin,[34] in particular, clearly felt comfortable with the notion that they knew what was best for the people and Tony Crosland,[35] clearly thought that he knew or that the people of Grimsby would tell him when he was very wrong.  Each of these politicians was part of a democratic project to change peoples’ minds, to make them better social democrats and, ultimately for most of them, with the possible exception of Woodrow Wyatt and Desmond Donnelly,[36] to make them “better people”.

In believing in these things this group of democratic socialists and social democrats were part of the five main democratic socialist modernising projects of the post Second World War era: 

  1. the nationalisation programme of the 1945-51 government
  2. the housing and town planning programme of the 1940s-1960s
  3. the creation of comprehensive education
  4. the expansion of the welfare state
  5. the creation of the National Health Service

The first two of these projects were almost unmitigated disasters in terms of the long stated reasons for doing them. The first promised to socialise society and failed to do so. The second, with some localised exceptions, destroyed communities the length and breadth of the UK without consulting people and with little regard for the social or cultural consequences. The final three achieved much more of what they set out to achieve and are therefore more easily defensible in terms of their impact on people’s lives but they were also created against the strong opposition of many stakeholders. They also had mixed results, not least because of the fundamental lack of political will on the part of the British left since the war to see the process of reform as being based, in David Marquand’s phrase, on a developmental state.[37] The five modernising projects, taken together, formed the high tide of democratic socialism; they became the settlement of the New Jerusalem rather than its beginning. From the perspective of the citizens whose minds and lives were to changed the impact was mixed but the lesson clear: in all these schemes “metis”, local knowledge and consent, were largely irrelevant to the modernisers.

The response to these projects came in the 1980s in a series of equally ambitious modernising projects instigated by Conservative governments elected after 1979:

  1. Privatisation of state owned industries
  2. Regulation of trade unions
  3. Sell of council houses
  4. Market deregulation

The purpose of this programme of reform was to create an enterprise culture and a free market. Each was carried out with little consultation and in the case of the trade unions with the overt intention destroying existing relations in order to change minds sets throughout industry. The result was the transformation of the British economy. Where once there was a mixed economy in which manufacturing, and the social architecture associated with it, played a significant role and in which there was a substantial stock of public housing, now there is an economy in which service industries dominate and social structures are significantly less stable. From the perspective of the citizens whose minds and lives were changed the impact was mixed but the lesson clear: in all these schemes metis, local knowledge and consent, were largely irrelevant to the modernisers.

In the social democratic and neo-liberal  projects of modernisation we see the same basic failure of communication and consultation in the framing and implementation of policy. It is banal to say that this is the root of the problem in contemporary politics but even if it is banal, it is also true. And it has consequences in my opinion for the way in which we view the use of focus groups and polling by contemporary political parties. In short, rather than despising these things we need to learn how to do them better.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider all of these projects. Instead I want to explore two which are intimately related: nationalisation and privatisation. I want to suggest very simply that the most compelling argument for the nature of the failure in the political process that created and ran the nationalised industries is the manner of their privatisation.

The nationalisation programme of the post-war Labour government was planned, run and carried out in style similar to the kinds of cases Scott describes, though with a fully functioning civil society. The victims of these projects, the workers in the industries, the customers for the goods and services, and the owners, did not perish and I am not equating them as victims to the victims of the camps. But that does not mean that they did not suffer in both an actual and a “latent” sense, and it does not mean that within the realms of victims of democratic politics there are not rankings for victims.

By latent suffering I mean the concealed disappointment felt by those who experienced the failings of these modernising projects. This disappointment developed over the post-war period, in the case of the Attlee settlement, into a significant constituency of “natural” Labour supporters becomes opponents. It was a disappointment, a destruction of the enthusiasm of the Labour movement that was created by the gap between the promise and the reality of the modernising projects.  For customers of these industries it is meant to describe, not so much the latent disappointment, as the pleasure or satisfaction forgone because of the level of service or disservice provided by monopoly nationalised industries. For the owners, the suffering was real in the sense of a way of life that ended, it might have been a way of life that lacked the romance and the literature of working class life in a place like the Gorbals in Glasgow before modernisation came to clear the slums, but it was their way of life and in some cases had been for as many generations as there had been mines. I do not particularly want to privilege this sense of suffering, of a possible future forgone, but neither do I think it is right merely to ignore it or dismiss it with reference to the payment of compensation. Do we credit redundancy pay as a valid form of recognition of the change of a life when a miner is paid off never to go down a pit again.

From the late 1930s onwards the idea of common ownership was constructed in Labour thinking as a vital component of the way in which society would be transformed: the way in which minds would be changed. No one in the Labour movement, not even Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan, actually thought about how, in reality, an alteration in the form of ownership would create the socialist utopia – the new Jerusalem. This emphasis on the question of ownership was in fact almost entirely divorced from and frequently discussed separately too, the kind of society that would exist and the kind of people who would live and work in that society. Indeed, the notion of a new society is gradually air brushed out of Labour thinking. If you compare Ramsey Macdonald’s Socialism: Critical and Constructive of 1921 with the essays in the second volume of Tracey’s history of the first fifty years of the Labour Party published in 1948, what is striking is the way which the connection between the process of socialisation has become separated from the kind of society that will be created by nationalisation. In 1921 Macdonald talks of the creation of communal property as the means of better motivating society and changing the basis upon which people live:

Here the socialist can lay down one of the foundation stones of his reconstructed society. The personal enjoyment of property possible to the mass of people from collective and not from individual ownership…Communal property, however, whilst enlivening the communal interests of the individual and enabling him to understand what community means and how its well-being is his own well-being, is not a sufficient motive for industry. It belongs to a better class of motive than the purely personal one, and we may hope that in time that class will be predominant.

What are needed beyond communal ownership are what Macdonald calls Socialist Incentives by which he means control, “The complete organisation of industry”. The point of the organisation of industry is to change society, in part at least by giving “the workmen responsibility for the workshop”.[38] By 1948, Morrison is defending the record of the form of socialisation that has taken place thus: “The essential aims are better public service, greater efficiency and economy, and the well-being and dignity of the workers employed in the industry or service”. [39] No mention by then of workers control and no link to the creation of a new society but  the aim of running the industries better as industries, in other word industrial rather than social modernisation.

This break between society and industry was to have a devastating impact on the reception for public ownership amongst the generation that came of age in the 1950s. In theory the creation of the public sector had created the new society, the first socialised generation rejected that notion – it had nothing to do with them. They were not victims of it as such, but rather neither were they part it or was it part of their lives. Minds had not been changed merely organisational structures altered.

Is there an aspect of nationalisation that actually worked? Workers did not control their industry, did not share in the full fruits of their labour, and the division between management and the workers was if anything gradually deepened. But more than this, society remained essentially capitalist in orientation and was not socialised. The depth of the failure of nationalisation as a society-changing project needs to be seen in context of what was expected of that nationalisation by the left. Crosland, Gaitskell and Bevan all lamented as early as the first half of the 1950s the extent of the failure that had taken place. Bevan grapples with the problem in In Place of Strife, Crosland in the articles that led to the Future of Socialism and Gaitskell in his diary. Mainly however, the Labour Party skirted around Morrison’s failure, indeed if you attacked nationalisation from the social democratic right you were reactionary, if you attacked it from the left you were revolutionary. Overall, programme must go down as one of the greatest failures of political imagination, honesty and courage in British political history. In government the Labour Party never attempted to democratise a single industry by spreading ownership in a genuinely participatory way or instituting localised workers control on a co-operative basis. Surely in 2002 we can see that the general level of over employment in the nationalised sector and the defence of differentials will not do as a substitute for a new society. Morrison acknowledged the need to develop the form of public ownership but all post-war policy making in this area was actually devoted to the format for bringing additional industries into public ownership rather for reforming those that had been nationalised between 1945-51. In commenting on Labour’s performance in social policy over the 20th century, Nick Ellison has written: “…having realised a good many of their welfare objectives, as these had been understood by 1945, Labour governments did not manage to build on these foundations in the second half of the century. Instead, in retrograde fashion, they defended their creation without seeking substantially to improve it and certainly without critically examining the collectivist nature of welfare provision itself.”[40] Exactly the same could be said of nationalisation.

The failure to actually transform attitudes and relationships through nationalisation was the key to the ability of the Conservative governments to privatise. In only one industry was there a substantial confrontation: mining.

Mining was not different because the nature of the nationalisation was different. Initially, of all the industries nationalised, mining was the one in which the workers felt most triumphalist. But this feeling did not last, though a certain sense of ownership did. We need, however, to be very careful when we consider the nature of ownership of the mines expressed by the NUM. Nationalisation had not made the coal industry the miners industry. The political analysis of miners leaders like Frank Cousins and Arthur Scargill, was that the National Coal Board was as much the enemy as the state and capitalism. It was this political analysis which made the mining industry the scene of the major confrontation over privatisation.

The destruction of the UK mining industry was not a necessary precondition for the neo-liberal modernisation of the British economy. Market deregulation did not require the creation of internal enemies. The unions were not too powerful to be controlled by the right laws. The state was not going to be destroyed by Arthur Scargill – as much as it suited Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher to pretend otherwise and no matter what it felt like at the time. Indeed, it felt like that because it was made to feel like that to justify the political violence on both sides. The Thatcherite manifestation of the neo-liberal modernisation project required enemies who were to be made into victims as a necessary condition of the project. For Thatcher to modernise there needed to be a reactionary past to transcend. The objective was to destroy a mindset.

But nationalisation in the 1940s also had its victims. Can we compare the owners of industries that were nationalised by the Labour government of 1945-51 and the miner of the 1980s? Both had their ways of life destroyed by a state run democratic modernisation project that rejected the local and specialist knowledge in favour of abstract political notions of how something should be done. Both were stigmatised, as being arch reactionary opponents of the inevitable wave of the future, clinging to the wreckage of the past because they said that the policy of the government of the day had embarked on could not work. What is the difference? The difference is again that you cannot join the club of the victims unless you are from a politically designated victim group. There are no property-owning victims in the vast bulk of historical and political science writing because ownership of property disbars you from being a victim. Or perhaps because progressive politics has no victims? Owners of that property, often truly awful and corrupt people, especially mine owners, are therefore made the scapegoats not the victims – the evil plutocrats – another species who do not enjoy the same rights as workers, in Bevan’s phrase, “lower than vermin”.

The failure of nationalisation as a mind-changing project is largely due to the exclusion of the main subjects of the modernisation from the process of running the industries. In a similar way the model adopted for privatisation meant that the objective of creating a property owning and entrepreneurial society, was not significantly advanced by the selling of shares in nationalised industries. The bulk of the shares quickly transferred to existing large scale share owners and though there was a net increase in share ownership this did not impact on the culture of the workforce in the industries privatised. While reform of union control and work place practices did change the culture of some of these industries, the basic mistake in privatisation was exactly the same as the basic mistake in nationalisation, the exclusion of the workforce from the process. A model akin to the John Lewis Partnership or the co-operative movement with dividend payment and share ownership might have been more successful in altering perceptions of workers with respect to property. It might not. The point is that the workers did not need to be included in the process of privatisation because the form of nationalisation had not included them.

Democratic political projects have victims but not by definition. People retain a degree of choice. There are winners. But there is still debate about the nature of choice in a democracy and the nature of winning. An entire alternative conference could have taken place reflecting on the other kind of mind changing which dominates our societies: consumer choice. I do not agree that consumer choice is no choice at all,[41] that democracy is a façade for the endless manipulation of citizens, the constant construction and imposition of external models into peoples’ lives. When reading critiques of contemporary democracy it sometimes appears as if the only choice people are offered in democracy is between breakfast cereal brands. That voting is merely a choice between corporate brands. There is something in this critique of course. But the left, in particular, needs to understand and engage with consumption rather than run from it. Some, like Mark Arahams have been arguing this since the late 1950s of course.[42]

As the work of CUSP’s Christian Bugge shows, people construct identities as part of consumption; they assemble sub-cultural capital, through their adoption of styles and their choice of life styles. In constructing these identities there is a freedom from the imposition of “mind changing” of whatever kind – political or even moral and religious projects that try and impose value systems. The plurality of consumption does not reduce choice but creates it. It is as far removed from the prevailing sense of mono-culture in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia as one can imagine. In private life, therefore, I would argue that consumption is itself a form of democratic diversity and plurality. In turn the construction of identity through consumption means that large-scale democratic projects of mind changing have increasingly difficulty in being taken seriously by people because their presentation simply cannot compete with the presentation of products and lifestyles that attempt to fill private spheres of identity. Rather than despise this as the end of politics, we should celebrate it as the best insurance against a renewal of real tyranny. I am not suggesting that contemporary democracy is in a healthy state. I am suggesting, rather banally perhaps, that democratic choice exists embedded in a culture of choice.

The ability to reject or elect a government is also a measure of democratic reliance and genuine choice. So French and Dutch electorates are not signs of unhealthy democracies but of healthy ones – ones that are functioning well short of collapse and illustrating the deep division and discontent within their societies. Liberal politicians too often equate themselves and their careers with the democratic process itself – the two things are different. The threat to democracy is not from action and mobilisation of protest voting but from apathy. Which is all to state the obvious: the instigators and the subjects of democratic modernisation projects are not by definition victims. They become victims when their projects are designed and implemented in ways that disregard the need to mobilise and include. It has to be said that in UK democracy since 1945 this has been more often the case than not. Finally, that intention again makes no difference. When projects fail people they  create victims and it makes no difference to the modernised if the modernisers wanted to create a New Jerusalem or a new enterprise culture.

Two kinds of responses might be made to the democratic part of this paper. First that this is a counsel of despair which only serves to support and give comfort to the most extreme kind of anti-statist prejudice. It renders the political system impotent in the face of systematic or global societal problems; in the end only the state and other states can solve these problems. Or that the individualising of politics, the very talk of individuals as victims of political projects, concedes at the outset. Individuals and not social classes or society as a whole are what matters.

My response to charge of anti-statist prejudice is to suggest that it is not the state but the market that has solved the problems of advanced industrial society and it is the market that has created the worst problems of advanced industrial society. We need to look therefore for the solutions in the market and the states role in this is important in enabling a civil society but probably not central. I would also suggest that social democrats like me are applying our internal regime prejudice here: if we care about the individual in totalitarian regimes do we not have a responsibility to care about the individual in democratic ones and leave behind the fetishistic attachment to statist solutions.

My response to the individualism charge quite simply that this is the luxury of my position as an academic. I am not a politician because I do not want to make hard choices between two virtues or two evils that make a difference to people’s lives. I am increasingly interested in political history because of its utility as a means of getting politicians to think more carefully about the choices they do make. There is a requirement  – a moral imperative  – to understand the individual implications of political projects of modernisation and mind changing. We need to construct politics from the victims up, it we want to avoid the mistakes of the past. Which is where we come to the possibility of an optimistic conclusion to this paper. The entire notion of political projects that set out to change minds is discredited. It has been rejected in advanced industrial countries by increasing numbers of voters who stay at home or vote for extremes. We have at our disposal all the apparatus necessary to engage with political project construction from the bottom up, built and implemented with local knowledge. The kind of focus groups, polling and deliberative democracy that has been experimented with in small groups needs to be developed systematically. It needs to match the kind of work political parties are increasingly do at and between elections in measuring and testing policy proposals against reception.[43]

The only real argument against this kind of consultative or deliberative politics is an argument about leadership. It is Burke’s argument about representation or delegation updated with 20th century concerns about collective goods and big ideas. This notion of politics is based on a perhaps obsolete idea of what people in advanced industrial electorates want or need from politics. Would we want to live in the kind of society created by deliberative or direct democracy? Probably not, if there were no barriers created between minorities and the will of the majority. This would mean in effect inverting the balance of the role of civil society and intermediate institutions from being the buffer between citizens and the market or citizens and the state to being the buffer between the minorities within society and the expressed will of the majority. When looking at the great modernisation projects of the post war era that failed most spectacularly we can detect the outline of a principle. Deliberative democracy can, should and to an extent is already, working in areas in which people are being asked to make choices and claims about themselves and their communities. In which they would be the victims of a policy failure, ie if we are going to change people’s minds we ask them first and we design our large scale modernisation projects with their input from the outset. We govern by the consent of the potential victims.

Another  possible response to this paper is to say that all I am saying is what neo-liberals have been saying for years about the nature of politics and the state. If everything were left to the market then the problems would disappear. Indeed many of the reviews of Scott’s book make this point. There is something in this of course. If human nature could be allowed to govern the world unimpeded, driven either by an egalitarian or a competitive impulse – depending on which state of nature proved correct – then the role of politics would be minimal. The situation we face is not, though, year zero. The application of extreme free market solutions, a project of modernisation imbued with a form of high modernism which equates in audacity with anything dreamed up by Lenin, has many of the same systemic failings in transition situations as the high modernism of social democracy. The methodology of political change is what needs most careful attention. Scott’s advocacy of localism is all well and good. Many of the successful modernising projects of the post-war years in the UK, in housing and education, were indeed local in genesis and implementation. But localism and the level of subsidarity necessary for its success produces wild fluctuations in the provision and quality of public goods and creates no transparent and understandable mechanism for the distribution of those goods  – at least the market makes sense of the inequality it creates. How do we insert local knowledge meaningfully into national and global solutions for modernisation which do not create victims, if only relatively, in other locations?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with state action, qua state action. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the market. If we take the impact of politics on citizens, if we try and see like a citizen, then we really shouldn’t care how we arrive at a healthcare system that works, an education system that provides opportunity or an economy that creates wealth. From the perspective of the citizen it does not matter if it is market liberalisation that takes away your job or nationalisation which takes away choice.

There is a conclusion to this paper that would say the logic of Scott’s critique and my application of it to democratic projects, is that all politics is evil. I do not want to argue that because it is merely a counsel of despair. The weaker conclusion is that all shades of politicians end up the same when you exam the nature of the victims of their mistakes. The language of victimhood unites Joseph K, Eugenia Ginzburg, Victor Klemperer, the residents of tower blocks, and the unemployed of the South Wales coal field. The manipulated have a discourse of their own, which is rarely studied or compared by the historians and political scientists who write about modernisation. The assumption is that the differentiation that really matters is in the intention of the state and in the possibility of redress. I share this assumption. It is not meaningful to compare Klemperer with the miners, the miners had both a greater range of choices and the possibilities of redress. But the mechanisms of legitimacy are the valid differentiation and not the intentions of the political actors. It would be like judging criminals on the basis of what they intended rather than what they actually did. We say of democratic politicians, especially social democratic ones, that they had/have the best intentions of the people at heart. The problem is that they often knew and intended there to be victims of their actions but they believed they were right. There is something intrinsic to the political projects involving an idea of modernisation that creates victims and therefore the only rational position is Oakeshotts. Given the record of the left in the 20th century this counsel of despair can only be rejected with humility.

But I do reject it. Politics remains the answer to our problems. What most of the modernisation projects I have discussed have in common is that they see people as a means to an end – the racial state, the communist state, the New Jerusalem, the market economy. I hope it is not entirely a platitude to end, as I began, to say that we need a politics that, pace Kant, treats people as the end and not the means.[44]

[1] James Scott’s, Thinking like a state. How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998

[2] “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or as that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” Fundamental Principles of Metaphysics of Ethics, (1785)

[3] Scott, pp2-5

[4] Scott, p 343

[5] Scott p 310

[6] Scott, p 341

[7]  Tzvetan Todorov, Voices from the Gulag, Life and Death in Communist Bulagria, The Pennsylvannia State University Press, Pennsylvannia, 1999, p 17

[8] Scott, p 162

[9] Scott, p 163

[10] Scott, p 174

[11] Scott, p 174

[12] Scott, p 203

[13] See Christopher Hibbert, Orwell’s Victory, 2002, pp 50-51 for details of Raymond Williams’ attack on Orwell.

[14] Todorovo, op cit, p 17

[15] Miron Dolot, Execution by Hunger, The Hidden Holocaust, WW Norton, New York, 1985

[16] These many millions of deaths are almost incidental in the work of E.H.Carr. It always worth pausing when reading work like this and imaging if the word class were to be replaced by the word race.

[17]  Tzvetan Todorov, Voices from the Gulag, Life and Death in Communist Bulagria, The Pennsylvannia State University Press, Pennsylvannia, 1999, see for example “Camp Life”, pp 65-96

[18] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman, The Racial State, CUP, 1991

[19] Omar Bartov, Murder in our midst have made aspects of this point

[20]  Tzvetan Todorov, (ed), Fascism and Communism, Francois Furet and Ernst Nolte, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2001, p x

[21] See Philip Gourevitch,  We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Picador, London 1998

[22] Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the extreme. Moral life in the concentration camps, Pheonix, London 1999, pp 59-67

[23] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Savied, Ababcus, London 1986.

[24] This point is explored in Omer Batvor, Murder in our Midst, The Holocaust, industrial killing and representation, OUP, London 1996, pp 125-130

[25] Tadeusz Borowski, This way for the gas ladies and gentlement, Penguin, 1976

[26]  Primo Levi, “ Shame”, in the Drowned and the Saved, Abacus, London, 1988, p 60-61

[27] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind, Harvill Press, London 1967, pp 311-312

[28] Quoted in  Todorov, Moral Life, p 91

[29] See for example the story “The people who walked”, in This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Penguin, 1976 pp 82-97

[30] See “Introduction”, in  Michael Foot, Aneruin Bevan, Single volume centenary edition, Gollancz, London 1998

[31] See entry in Dictionary of Labour Biography, Politicos, London 2002

[32] See “Gordon Brown” in Kevin Jeffreys, (ed), Labour Lieutenants, I.B.Tarius, Forthcoming

[33] See Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Cohen Books, London 1996

[34] See “introduction”, Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin,  Single Volume Edition, Politicos, London 2002

[35] See “Crosland as Apparatnik” in Dick Leonard, (ed), Croslands Legacy, Macmillan, London 1999???

[36] See entry in Dictionary of Labour Biography, Politicos, London 2002

[37] David Marquand, The unprincipled society, ?????, 1989, ?????

[38]  J.R..Macdonald, Socialism: Critical and Constructive, Cassell, 1921 reproduced in Bernard Barker (ed), Ramsey Macdonald’s political writings, Allen Lane, 1972, pp 209-211

[39]  Herbert Morrison, Economic Socialisation, in Herbert Tracey (ed) The British Labour Party, Volume II, Caxton Publishing Company, 1948, p14

[40] Nick Ellison, “La

bour and Welfare politics”, in Brian Brivati and Richard Heffernan, eds, The Labour Party, A Centenary History, Macmillan, 2000, p 433

[41] Perhaps the most famous statement of this position and arguments like it is Naomi Kleins (?), No Logo,

[42] Must Labour Lose,

[43]  See for example James S Fishkin, The Voice of the People, Yale, New Haven, 1995

[44] “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or as that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” Fundamental Principles of Metaphysics of Ethics, (1785)