In the negative world, people should look at ways to become less visible to governments and other entities
The famous Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is an influential book arguing for skepticism about government programs to improve society.
One of its key concepts is legibility. As the Wikepedia entry for the book describes it:
The book makes an influential argument that states seek to force "legibility" on their subjects by homogenizing them and creating standards that simplify pre-existing, natural, diverse social arrangements. Examples include the introduction of last names, censuses, uniform languages, and standard units of measurement. While intended to facilitate state control and economies of scale, Scott argues that the eradication of local differences and silencing of local expertise can have adverse effects.
One example of legibility is the the introduction of land registers. In medieval society, rights to land were governed by custom, were often not written down, and were highly idiosyncratic. By creating formalized land ownership structures and registries, centralized national governments were able to, among other things, more easily collect taxes.
Today, everything about our society is designed around extreme legibility. And it’s not just the government doing it. Byrne Hobart, author of the influential newsletter The Diff that I mentioned last week, has as one of this running themes that “big tech sees like a state.”
The legibility construct is something that we should take into account in what I’ve called the “negative world,” where for the first time in 400 year history of the country, official society viewed Christianity negatively. This is, perhaps, also relevant to non-religious political conservatives.
The key idea is that if you are not legible to the government and other entities, it is harder for those entities to impose their mandates on you.
One example is the growth of informal men’s retreats. As I’ve noted before, all men’s groups and organizations are heavily stigmatized in our society, and outright illegal in many cases. Church men’s groups, some remaining single sex schools, fraternities, and a few other groups are basically what’s left, and many of them have a target on their back. Witness the years long jihad the New York Times ran against the Augusta National Golf Club to bully them into admitting women.
What’s more, even if an all male organization managed to exist, becoming a member of it could be hazardous to your health, so to speak, if the media decided to make an issue of it, as they’ve been known to do.
What I’ve seen developing organically in response to this is groups of men creating informal men’s retreats. These are not formally organized institutions or networks. Rather, they are friends or birds of a feather who get together for a “guy’s weekend” that is social, but critically also has some professional purpose such has having speakers giving talks on leadership or particular industries.
Because these groups are not incorporated, don’t have official membership lists, and may not even have a name, they are far less legible to society at large. It’s hard to tell men they can’t get together for a weekend with their buddies to drink beer and shoot guns, for example.
Informality - that is, having organizations that do not formally exist as either incorporated or unincorporated associations - is common in the developing world, where it is frequently seen as a barrier to economic development. However, adopting informality as a principal helps reduce legibility to people and entities that might not like you.
To be clear: developing world informality such as setting up a business without the required permits or not paying your taxes is illegal. Don’t do that.
But there are many ways to potentially apply the informality principle to reduce legibility in America.
Besides informal men’s retreats, another example might be house churches. I’m not necessarily a fan of these, but they are a standard part of the repertoire in other countries where officialdom is not entirely friendly to religion, such as China.
Something like a house church or informal men’s retreats don’t make you invisible, but they do reduce legibility.
Another mechanism that would reduces legibility is decredentialization and the replacement of formal mechanisms like degrees in decision making with informal networks of interpersonal trust.
Family or clan based networks are an example that in fact do operate in this manner today. In certain domains or particularly low trust environments, they can be extremely powerful. For example, a group of Gujarati families from the town of Palanpur in Indian took over the Antwerp diamond trade from Orthodox Jews.
These kinds of networks aren’t problem free. Some of them would certainly fall afoul of US anti-discrimination laws - though this seems to be mostly ignored for non-white ethnic groups who do things like ensure real estate stays owned within their ethnic group. They also create the conditions for affinity group scams, which are apparently common in the Mormon community, for example.
I don’t advocate for ethnic based networks, merely cite them as an example of what I’m talking about. But other types of interpersonal trust networks are very viable in the United States and were once common - banks providing credit based on personal knowledge of someone’s character based on longstanding relationships, for example.
The government is undoubtedly deeply hostile to this and tries vigorously to stamp it out, but various industries continue to function with a heavy dose interpersonal networks of trust, such as venture capital, where we see how powerful it is.
One example of these in real life, albeit in a lower trust register, are online networks of influencers on X, Youtube or other platforms. These people typically have no formal relationship with each other - they may not even know each other in real life - but are part of of a semi-unified discourse.
Establishment entities also don’t like these, which is why you often see activist academics and NGOs publish research trying to map these networks through analysis of social media and the like. But these tend to end up being guilt by association attacks, which inherently carry less weight in the public mind than formal relationships such as membership in a shared organization.
Anything that is oriented around informal vs. formal networks is less legible.
Again, my point here is not to advocate for any particular strategy, merely to note that the idea of legibility is something we should take into account in our lives. (This is important for everyone to consider in an era of what’s been called “surveillance capitalism”).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that a writer under the name “Kruptos” recently mentioned legibility in an article about his idea for a parallel society.
One of the things that we have to think about in regards to the rewards and punishments of the regime is the issue of legibility. Part of unplugging from the regime is developing the ability to make ourselves illegible to the regime. If the regime cannot easily read us, it cannot govern us and assert it authority over us. But make no bones about it, the technocratic administrative state wants to register us legible while keeping itself illegible to us. Part of establishing our space is the process of making ourselves as invisible to the state as is possible. No easy feat, because one of the driving principles today of the technological system is to render us increasingly legible by the regime. Big data. Surveillance. Artificial intelligence algorithms and the like.
I don’t endorse his idea of a radical parallel society, but there may be some interesting thought provoking ideas in there.
As we think about how to structure our lives in the 21st century, legibility is something we all need to take into account. You can be sure that the government, tech industry, etc. are not just thinking about legibility, but focused on it and acting on it. So we should be as well.
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Cover image credit: Chinese house church by Huang Jinhui, CC BY-SA 4.0