(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
Suppose you wake up one day to find that you are the new king of your very own state. After a moment of shock, you start to think about all the cool things you can do now—the laws you can pass, the taxes you can collect, the armies you can raise. But then you realize that even if you pass a law, you don’t know if people will follow it; even if you impose taxes, you don’t know if people will pay them; even if you raise an army, you don’t know whether it will remain loyal. In short, sitting in your palace at the center of your new domain, your first problem—maybe your most severe problem—is being able to perceive what people are doing.
There are several strategies you could use in response. You could appoint trusted subordinates to carry out your will and enforce your laws (see my post on English aristocrats), if you have such trusted subordinates! You could impose head taxes or customs duties at the city gates or other travel bottlenecks, so people passing through will be unable to avoid them. But each of these approaches has limits. A more ambitious strategy, used by practically all states throughout history, is to deliberately increase the populace’s legibility: the degree to which its activity can be monitored.
The classic discussion of legibility is by James C. Scott, across several of his books—most directly, Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. In a nutshell, states force changes in their subjects’ behavior in order to more easily monitor and control them. One example is having people carry an identity card; in our modern society, this is convenient for businesses as well as governments, but back in the days when most people lived in the same village all their lives, and knew each other intimately, the only purpose of identity papers was for the traveling government official to know whether you had paid your taxes this year.
More drastic examples include German “scientific forestry,” in which a complex forest ecosystem was demolished and replaced with a monocrop of elm trees, grown in carefully measured rows and columns, so that the lumber yield from the forest would be predictable (in theory); the frequent practice in Southeast Asia of forcing your peasants to live in your capital city, so that their behavior can be easily observed; demanding that they all plant wheat, which can be easily assessed and taxed just before harvest, and making it a crime to grow potatoes (which grow underground and can easily be concealed from the tax-man); and forcing people to take on last names, to make censuses easier and to better distinguish “William of Hole-in-the-Wall” and “William of Top-of-the-Hill” in the official records. (See e.g. here.)
Writing in 1951, Hanna Arendt imagined with horror what Soviet intelligence would be able to do if they possessed a social-network graph of their captive populace, the better to monitor dissidents and punish them, their families, and everyone they ever knew. (Of course, we today have obligingly entered ourselves into such a social-network graph, providing it with intimate data about our lives that any intelligence service would drool over—to our growing sorrow. We also carry tracking devices in our cars and on our persons! Truly, we are the most legible generation in all of history.)
On the flip side, people strive to make themselves less legible to the state, to evade its control. This is one reason why merchants, nomadic communities, and “barbarians” are typically viewed with suspicion by “official” society, since their capital is easily moved and they are hard to tax or control.
In general, however, the basic rule is more legibility = more control.
This is not just true with states. One of the enduring problems of business organization is how to make sure that one’s employees are doing what they are being paid to do. Production quotas were an early (and crude) mechanism to monitor employees; nowadays, employers often use video cameras, monitoring software on work computers, and the like. You can even see this concept on the personal level: think of the controlling husband who demands that his wife use only a credit card that he has the password for, the better to control her spending. (Or a controlling wife, or that matter.)
The theme of legibility is a rich vein of conflict for fiction. An especially important spur to conflict is when a new technology, or form of magic, or a new type of organization such as a police force or intelligence service, disrupts the status quo of legibility and makes people easier or harder to monitor. This can be something as mundane (to our eyes) as the first census in a country, in which the populace suddenly is categorized and sorted by the regime to enable better control. As an example, the Biblical figure of King David carries out a census and is said to have sinned grievously by doing so—so much so that the realm is punished with a divine death plague. The political scientist in me wonders whether this “death plague” is a coded reference to violent popular resistance to the census; in Southeast Asia, as Scott notes, the very first objective of rioting peasants often was not to lynch the local landlord (that came second), but to burn down the government’s records office.
Conversely, think of the heartburn that some governments are feeling over the growth of cryptocurrencies, which aspire to be completely untraceable and thus beyond the reach of taxation authorities.
In your fiction, the interplay between legibility and obscurity can drive compelling conflicts with the state, or with an employer, or a local mafia boss, or even within families. For states, the topic has implications for taxation, how armies are raised and led, and a host of other details. Again, a single fundamental constraint gives rise to many rich problems, all of which can be of service in your writing.
(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)