MOBILITY AND MOBILISATION: WHY MODERN STATES CANNOT TRUST NOMADS
Gabriel Lafitte March 2011
China, at its imperial centre, has long mistrusted the mobility of the nomads of its northern and western edges. The mobility of the nomads was always the core of imperial fears and strategies. Mobility was an ever-present problem for successive dynasties facing their nomadic neighbours so closely to the north, and so far away in the west. Centuries of managing the risks arising from mobility left a deep imprint on Chinese minds, and a major repertoire of governmentalities to deal with it.
Negative as mobility has seemed to emperors in palaces, a closely related term, mobilisation, has come to have only positive meanings, both in raising imperial armies to defend against nomads, and in today’s world mobilisation is the process whereby the productive efficiency of the capitalist market economy is realised. This is a think piece on the interplay of mobility and mobilisation, as seen from above and below.
Fearing for the vulnerability of peasant farmers to nomadic raids, looting and plunder, it was ingrained in Chinese imperial worldviews that the fluid, mobile nomads were ever a threat, the more so because their whereabouts are unknowable, since they are beyond official scrutiny, having no registered domicile that can be monitored and taxed. How to govern or at least deter the nomads has been an abiding concern for dynasty after dynasty, including even those such as the Manchu Qing who themselves were nomads who conquered China. Many of the default policy settings of today’s China originate in the attitudes of the Qing, who ruled China from the mid seventeenth century to early twentieth. They were obsessed both with how their small Manchu population of nomadic warriors from the far north could maintain control over the whole of China, and how to subdue bigger nomadic ethnicities such as the Mongols and Tibetans.
China’s imperial annals emphasise the cultivation of sophisticated imperial statecraft as the primary means of keeping the nomads in check, divided against each other, in tributary submission to the imperial court, with military force the last option when diplomacy, patronage, imperial benevolence and dividing nomads against each other all had failed. The master narrative of the annals is that, as in the ancient Art of War, state violence is necessary only occasionally, when nomads suddenly congregate in vast numbers, to attack the lowlands, plundering the cities and farmlands. This foundational mythos does not correlate well with the historic records, however. Historically, China has tended to use force when it could, to extend its territories by conquest of nomadic realms. A closer look at the records, using not only Chinese but also Mongolian, Tibetan and other sources, shows that much of what Chinese court annalists depict as nomads and other barbarians paying tribute to the imperial court was more than repaid in kind, with the imperial court effectively buying off the emissaries from distant lands, with gifts to the nomads far greater than the offerings brought to the capital by the ambassadors from afar.
NOMADS AS RANDOM ATOMS
Nomadic mobility has constituted the core of the problem. As in the west, nomads are imagined to disperse and congregate anywhere and everywhere. If they can be anywhere, far beyond the gaze of the state, they can gather into a horde and descend without warning, to plunder civilisation. These are the heavily laden archetypes common to both ends of the Eurasian continent, whether in China or Europe, towards the Eurasian heartland’s endless steppes and its nomads. This is where the concepts of barbarism and civilisation were born, as polar opposites and inevitable antagonists. This is perhaps the deepest of dualisms, a logic of either/or, good and bad, right and wrong, in which one term entails the other but always opposes it, a source of chronic tension. This is clearly a construct of the sedentary, history-writing, civilised mind, seeking to distance itself from the barbarian.
Until the birth of communist power, Chinese central leaders always sought to manage the problematic nomadic mobility, not to end it. Only in Mongolia did China, prior to communism, seek to sedentarise the nomads and to settle their lands with Chinese peasants. Elsewhere, such as the Kirghiz and Uighur nomadic lands of Xinjiang, and the Tibetan Plateau, there was little attempt at governance of the nomads, little interest in extending the reach of the state into the lives of nomads and their daily decision-making about their herds and livelihoods. The dynastic annalists were content with recording the ritual submission of the Uighurs, Kirghiz and Tibetans to the imperial court, creating an appearance that Beijing was at least nominally in control. But actual control was not even attempted, except in Mongolia. The Mongols were on China’s doorstep, just to the north of Beijing. The northern capital had been built by the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan to be close to his beloved grasslands, enabling his court to winter in Beijing and summer on the steppes, with hunting aplenty. Ever since, China’s capital has been only just within the intensively farmed zone, never far from the great plains and drylands of Mongolia.
MOBILISING LAND, MOBILISING CAPITAL, MOBILISING PEOPLE
It is only in the twenty-first century that China has moved to decisively end all nomadic mobility in much of Tibet. While mobility has remained negative to the central gaze, at the same time China as the world’s factory, has also come to depend on a different kind of mobility, often called mobilisation by development specialists borrowing from the rhetorics of war. This is the mobility of the peasantry, seeking factory work in the cities, but willing to return home when a global financial crisis cuts employment, or when the seasonal harvest back home requires all hands, or when they are unwelcome in cities which refuse them and their children residential registration, schooling or health care. To economists, this mobilisation of surplus labour is the fundamental cause of China’s rise, and the mobilisation of labour in turn leads to the mobilisation of land. Small, uneconomic peasant plots need to be consolidated into bigger farms reliant on capital, fuels, and technology to replace human labour, and become much more productive, according to conventional development economics. Multiple small farms can become a few big mechanised farms only when land is mobilised, becomes a marketable commodity, with small farmers able and willing to sell their land leases and use the proceeds to launch themselves into business or a new urban life. The bigger the farms, the more capital-intensive they become, and better able to attract loans and investment, thus mobilising capital as well. Modernity, efficiency, and globalisation, all involve the mobilisation of labour, land and capital, so all may flow to where they are most productive and generate the highest rates of return. This is basic market economics.
In China, however, the mobilisation of labour is in both directions, not only from farm to factory, but back again. China has only partly dismantled a Maoist instrument of control, the hukou registration system, which designates each individual as either rural or urban, with no official permission to reside in the long term outside of one’s designated area. Despite the repeated calls of the World Bank and other orthodox economists of maximal efficiency, China has clung to this tool of governance, which was originally designed to prevent mass migration to cities. Even though the factories rely on the labour of the healthiest young adults from the countryside, China’s cities continue to view them ambivalently, as temporary guest workers, not as fellow citizens with equal claim to social security, education and official services. This ambiguous status helps keep wages down. Workers know they can be sacked and readily replaced by other new arrivals, and if they find it hard to find new employment, their presence in the city is at best semi-legal, with much scope for harassment by police, and pressure to return. Gradually this is changing, as the number of ex-peasants is in the hundreds of millions, as they gradually create pressure for access to schools and services, and equal rights. But there is still a gap, and an official stance that peasants are always peasants and must return if no longer needed. This is mobilisation with Chinese characteristics.
The willingness to leave one’s land and work in a factory is extolled as the heart of modernity, showing an adventurous spirit, a willingness to leave behind tradition and join the flows of fluid factors of production, a personal mobility that tracks, follows and goes to where the best opportunities are located. This is good mobility. It begins with the personal choice to seek one’s fortune in a factory, but leads to changing the whole of society. It is the mobility of the individual to leave the family and it enables the market’s invisible hand, and the state’s visible hand, to mobilise land as well. Then all factors of production are in play, fully mobilised, ready to flow to wherever rationality and efficiency can maximise their growth.
Mobilisation is what states do to ready their armed forces for war; it is a military metaphor that economists took up to express the struggle to create wealth. Mobilisation is directed by central authority, be it the invisible hand of market logic or central authorities deciding who and where should get rich first, including themselves. Modern labour mobility is patriotic, contributing to China’s growth, leading to mobilisation. Nomadic mobility by contrast is backward, uncivilised, a slavery to nature, an evasion of the state’s gaze, a refusal to contribute to the monetised economy and growth.
Modern mobility must be freely chosen by a modern individual rationally calculating where to move to maximise life chances. Revolutionary China had three decades of compulsory mobilisation of land, labour and capital, all in the service of the revolutionary party-state, all in the service of, and at the disposal of the party-state. Between 1949 and 1978 China mobilised everyone, by decree, to go wherever pioneering labour was needed to conquer nature, open the wilderness to the plough, build invulnerable defences deep inland in preparation for foreign invasion, even to magically produce steel in backyard furnaces. Mandatory mass mobilisation failed; the new mobilisation for wealth creation must build the party-state by beginning in individual will.
MOBILITY AS PRIMITIVITE SLAVERY TO NATURE
The voluntary mobility of the nomad cannot, in this urban sinocentric viewpoint, be rational, productive or a good business decision by an entrepreneur of animal production, since everyone Chinese knows it is merely blindly following the animals to their pastures, a bestial existence among beasts. What could be more primitive than wandering wherever one is led by animals?
If civilisation and barbarism are polar opposites, they must begin somewhere, especially if at some point in the ancient past civilisation grew out of barbarism. What was that first impulse towards civilised mastery of the natural world? In the writings of Chinese elites, that crucial turn comes down to a simple choice: the barbarian goes with the animals to the food; the civilised man brings the food to the animals. The civilised man pens his animals in a fenced enclosure, goes out and cuts forage, or grows a fodder crop, then brings it to his animals to fatten them while under his protection. It matters little that the civilised method is more laborious and these days reliant on fossil fuels as well. It cannot be that the nomad with her herd has a more relaxed life, or more leisure, or time to train the mind, because the nomad is a slave to nature, at the mercy of the elements, an insignificant figure in the vastness of the endless plateau.
In China’s annual statistical yearbooks, the nomads hardly appear, and certainly not as risk-calculating entrepreneurs running their own businesses. The provincial and county level statistical yearbooks covering the Tibetan Plateau add up to thousands of pages, updated each year. If one searches for the nomads, and the nomadic livestock production economy, there are statistics on tonnages of meat and wool produced, and on how much meat is consumed in the immigrant cities of Tibet, and in the rural areas (a lot less than in the cities). But the producers appear in only one table. In the Agriculture chapter, a table headed Basic Conditions of Rural Grass-Roots Units and Labourers lists the total rural workforce, lumping farmers and nomads together. As a category, known only as “rural labourers”, they suggest a rural lumpen proletariat, who could be available wherever there is work; rather than entrepreneurs whose advantage is their intimate knowledge of specific pastures, and the risks of too many or too few animals. Not much seems to have changed since, in 1935, Owen Lattimore wrote on the wickedness of being nomads (Owen Lattimore, ‘On the Wickedness of Being Nomads’, T’ien Hsia Monthly 1, no.1 (August 1935)): “All policies towards the Mongols, whether Chinese, Soviet or Japanese, appear to start from, a common premise: that something must be done about the nomadism of the Mongols. If, in other words, the Mongols can only be cured of being Mongols, all will be well—at least, for China, the Soviet Union or Japan. What, actually, is nomadism, Mongol nomadism? To begin with, there has for centuries been no true nomadism in Mongolia. The Mongols live under a form of society which was established as a compromise between the political requirements of the Manchu empire, and the social and economic traditions of the Mongols themselves. Each Mongol tribal group occupies a territory with well-defined frontiers. Within this territory, all of the land belongs to all of the tribe. People move about freely, because in an arid climate it is not practical to keep animals grazing always on the same fields. Most families in Inner Mongolia have one summer camping-place, to which they return year after year, and one winter place, which is even more permanent, because it is convenient to accumulate a store of fuel for the winter. These two camps are often only a few miles apart. No individual holds any property in land. There being no ‘capitalist’ monopoly of land, wealth and social advancement depend primarily on the energy and competence of the individual. If he manages his livestock with skill, the natural increase of every year is a clear increase in wealth; he does not have to lay out capital for the purchase of pasture land on which to feed his herds. Nor can the rich man, by asserting private ownership of land, prevent the poor man from grazing his flocks on it. Under such conditions a prince can be poor and ignorant (and often is) and a commoner can be rich and educated.”
The mobility of the nomads of Tibet is likewise not random, or arbitrary, in fact many Tibetans are troubled by the romantic baggage the term “nomad” carries in English, with its connotations of utter freedom, fluidity, irresponsibility, the rolling stone with no direction known. Like the Mongols, most Tibetan pastoralists are hardly nomadic in this modernist fantasy sense of wandering at will. Even before the sedentarisation policies of the modernising party-state they overwintered in one place, often a house, usually big enough for the family on a floor above the animals sheltering at ground level. The one major move to the summer pastures was to known and agreed pastures, usually at a higher altitude, which turn green in spring and summer, and must be vacated in autumn, before the grasses brown and become dormant, preserving biomass below ground for the next growing season. This annual migration up to the alpine meadows and down again, is not what most westerners imagine.
It is not a romantic dualism of opposites to recall the fundamental differences between mobility and mobilisation. Mobility decentralises; mobilisation centralises. Mobility is centrifugal and only occasionally centric, usually in festive high summer temporary encampment, or in midwinter clustering of families in their mud walled overwintering home. Mobilisation is centripetal, drawing into the centre of power all those to be disciplined to serve as agents of the state, in making war, or class war as activists of the Party. Mobilisation is a gathering of resources, especially human resources deemed as such by the gaze of the state, drawing unto itself the able bodied, to be trained and sent into battle. Mobility evades the state, slides past the gaze of the state and out of sight, disappearing up a winding valley, beyond scrutiny.
MOBILITIES: PASTORAL AND GLOBAL
We are all nomads now. In developed countries, jobs for life, marriages for life, careers for life are so twentieth century. We now move home, change partners, change not only employer but also industry, re-inventing ourselves as we move to fit in with the dynamic global economy. To be modern, equipped for global modernity, is to be ready to move, and when a global financial crisis wipes out not only my job but also my employer and even my industry, we do move. The pace of change, we are told, is such that we are always shovel-ready, primed with skill sets suited to the new emerging opportunities. Nomadic life has made a comeback, but it has done nothing to rehabilitate the old nomads of the steppes and high plateaus.
Unfashionable mobility is the literally upwards mobility of the nomad, beyond the reach of the state; and its is this escape to the highlands that is also celebrated romantically by the revolutionary and anarchist strands of modernity, which romance freedom from social constraint as the highest of values. The word “nomad” serves marketers of mass produced manufactures of all sorts, as a marker of individuality, appealing to imagery of being a carefree, footloose, self-actualising individual who is not just one of the herd. Innumerable manufactures use the term “nomad” to flatter the buyer into conceiving of their purchase as proof of being a free spirit, a different drummer, anything but a creature of habit and predictability. The very qualities that states view with suspicion are transvalued by those who see themselves as “rebels” by disposition.
The fashionability of the nomad, as marketing tool for encouraging consumption, and as a life strategy for responding to capitalism’s cycles of creation and destruction, would seem to have little connection with the lives of remote, unfashionable nomads of the drylands, rangelands, uplands and continental interiors, the original cowboys. The difference between the modern urban sophisticated nomad and the premodern primitive rural nomad was explored in a companion piece, Mobility and Mobilisation, with an emphasis on differences.
But what if premodern and modern mobilities were much the same, even if we haven’t noticed? That is what this post explores.
The argument is twofold: the premodern nomads were (and are) not free-floating random atoms leading lives of utter freedom, but circulated in set patterns and lived in hierarchical, ordered societies. Today’s urban nomads negotiate global capitalism by internalising a similar calculus of risk and reward, forever obtaining certificates of compliance with new competencies suited to the job market, fitting ourselves to the new governmentality which micro-manages our behaviour.
While advertisers invoke the figure of the nomad as a brand name to persuade us that being a loyal customer is an assertion of freedom, everyday reality in the contemporary compliance society is that we remake ourselves as required by the market. We circulate globally, within the designed and managed order of global corporations which might make use of our services in London today, Siberia tomorrow, then West Africa. The impersonal, disembodied, inexorable yet naturalised market rules. The market creates and destroys companies, industries; even entire economies are bankrupted by “market forces.” Governments struggle to regulate, and are helpless to defend even the sovereignty of the state when “market forces” sense weakness they can gamble against. When government is weak, the old disciplinary society is largely gone, we no longer ask what we can do for our country, and we are no longer nation builders. We are now investors in our own lives, hoping to anticipate which way the market will turn. The market makes no binding commitments to anyone or any institution or government, but expects the compliance of both the individual and the state even when it needs to be saved from itself.
The romance of the cyber age is that we can be instantly anywhere on the net, have friends across the planet, invest in our own human capital and earn a university degree sitting on the couch at home. We imagine ourselves as freely roaming nomads of the cyber world, as we comply with yet another administered test.
“Fixity, durability, bulk, solidity or permanence, those supreme values of the sedentary mentality, have all been degraded and have acquired an unambiguously negative flavour,” Bauman says. (Society Under Siege, 236). The old statist project of perfection, even utopia, to be attained by scientific rationality promised a predesigned destination, and it failed. Now there is only the market, and me. Having largely invented the market, its inventor, government, now exists in its shadow, as its facilitator, occasional regulator and rescuer, employing a wide range of devices to be alert for market failure and otherwise stay out of the way of this self-existing social force which obeys its own well-known, naturalised laws. Now that governments no longer claim to have a master plan, or even a destination beyond vague concepts such as “competitiveness” or “efficiency”, or “productivity”, governments at all levels are micromanagers deploying innumerable devices invented to monitor and adjust the conditions of life.
China, however, came into active possession of huge areas of rangeland quite recently, and with no tradition of exerting sovereign control over these vast territories to the north and west. The long transition from empire to nation-state was a task successive dynasties set themselves, including the Manchu Qing, the Republican/Kuomintang and the Communist Party. Whatever one makes of the contested claims China makes to territorial sovereignty of the far west, not even the staunchest advocate of China’s Tibet claims Chinese power extended its reach into the conditions of daily life of Tibetans, except perhaps for extraction of tax revenue in some places and times.
China in the 1950s had to make up governance of the rangelands, with almost no base. This turned out to be a complex matter, with no approach being settled on for some years, with considerable interim confusion. Among the most urgent nation building tasks were to instigate class warfare among the frontier ethnicities, and to objectively classify the various ethnicities according to scientific criteria. The compulsory denunciation by the poor of every ethnicity, of their rich, was the revolution. The liquidation of the exploiting classes, preceded by mass campaigns of public denunciation and “speaking bitterness” was the fundamental task of the revolution, and in many ethnic areas, communities were quite reluctant to denounce the educated elite. Similarly, the process of identifying, naming and classifying the ethnicities that constitute the family of nations of China, was such a messy, contradictory process that the ethnographers sent out to remote valleys and high plateaus found themselves attempting “to transform the worldviews of their minority informants during the interview process itself,” so Mullaney tells us.
This took on urgency because the regime in its early revolutionary enthusiasm asked people to identify their ethnicity, resulting in filled forms naming over 400 ethnicities in one province alone; a level of complexity quite beyond the capacities of a new state to administer with any semblance of disciplinary power. This was critical, since new China had dispensed with the Kuomintang approach of defining “the very meaning of the operative term, minzu, in such a way as to disallow the very possibility of a multi-minzu China.” (Mullaney 3) But 400 plus minzu were inadmissible, so the state engineered a miracle of categorical compression, a taxonomy of identity, which included locating each people or nation in a fixed position on a ladder of human social evolution. Where each minzu was located was crucial to the class warfare to be instigated through mass campaigns. If a minority was classified as feudal, the struggle to overthrow the landlord exploiting class must be relentless, the cadres must do everything necessary to ensure that anywhere from a minimal five per cent of the population up to as much as 80 per cent were denounced, humiliated, found guilty of class crimes and liquidated.
Other minzu were luckier, being classified in other positions on the ladder of social evolution. On the lowest rung of the ladder was primitive communism, an egalitarian prefeudal society which needed no purging, only urgent modernisation. On higher rungs were other categories, which were not predetermined to be as exploitative as the feudal, with different destinies.
These were among the devices new China deployed to create order, and make the state a presence in daily lives. The census, surveys, questionnaires, interviews, ethnographic expeditions, cadre recruitment and training, cadre schools were among the ways the state mobilised to govern. Once the oppressors were eliminated, construction could begin.
But what to construct? What could a revolutionary regime achieve in the grasslands? What was there to do? China was determined to assert sovereignty over these vast territories, and complete the task the Qing had barely attempted, to not only conquer but to rule the far west. The new state needed new ways, multiple and heterogeneous ways of making its new territories thinkable, recognisable, categorisable and calculable. It needed ways of operationalising the dream of making all that vast space –the Tibetan Plateau alone added one third to China’s area- productive.
The high plateau had not been mapped, nor its resources inventoried, or its rivers sourced to their origins. The mountains had not been climbed, the glaciers measured, the productivity of the grasses enumerated. The few existing old texts were dismissed as unsystematic and unscientific. The new generation of classifiers dismissed the old provincial gazetteers compiled by previous regimes as idiosyncratic, arbitrary, with “an excessive number of categories according to a mixed bag of taxonomic criteria: geographical origins, cultural practices, and sartorial habits, among others.” (Mullaney 54)
What the ethnographers despatched in the 1950s came up with instead was a drastic reduction of diversity, to 55 minorities, plus the Chinese, themselves redesigned as an ethnicity for the first time, making a total of 56 legally equal ethnicities altogether. This was the desired result, but it was achieved, as Mullaney’s elderly interviewees recount in detail, by hastily grabbing an obscure Edwardian era British imperial taxonomy of Chinese ethnicities based on neatly nested hierarchies of language groups, a fittingly “objective” criterion. On top of this, they used Stalin’s rigid alder of social evolution to assign evolutionary positions that spared the social suffering of class war for some and guaranteed it for others. In addition, the ethnographers had their own agendas, especially when it came to quaint and exotic communities they were fond of, even if they did not clearly possess all attributes Stalin listed as prerequisites for classification as a nation. In their unabashedly ethnogenetic enterprise”, these official ethnographers opened up the possibility for groups not yet in possession of Stalin’s four required attributes to be categorized as full-fledged minzu in advance, giving rise to the possibility of ‘precapitalist nationalities.’ The Ethnic Classification was based on a dynamic and futurological definition of minzu.” (Mullaney 90-1)
In the same first decade of communist power, the state had to decide its stance towards the land of snows as well as the people. How to make thinkable and categorisable a land of such vast extent, with so few people, a land surely of great productive potential, but potential for what was quite unclear. The Qing dynasty’s failure to turn conquest into rule, an empire into a nation-state, the inability to persuade or coerce large numbers of Chinese settlers into Tibet, suggested the difficulties ahead. Unlike other provinces assimilated into China, the Tibetan Plateau was simply too big, too remote and above all, too cold to sustain Chinese peasant farmers.
Everything was tried, usually with disastrous results. Human will could conquer mountains and all obstacles, the Chinese people were constantly told, and in the first decade of communist power, such revolutionary enthusiasms were believed. But everything about Tibet was unfamiliar, other, unknown, and mysterious. Where China’s great rivers actually began, in Tibet, was a mystery which previous regimes were unconcerned to adumbrate. How people could survive, and thrive, in such intense cold and thin air was a mystery. Whether Tibetans were physiologically different, enabling them to survive without altitude sickness, was an urgent priority for scientific investigation, but they turned out to be much the same as all humans.
An obvious start was to enumerate the land, count the livestock, map the rivers, lakes and glaciers, inventory the native species, and classify them into harmful and beneficial to crops and humans. Almost none of this had been done, other than the expeditions of European plant hunters, often employed by commercial nurseries looking for exotic species that could be domesticated as a new fashion for gardens throughout suburban modernity worldwide. Even the clouds of Tibet were unfamiliar, requiring great efforts at taxonomy, and a special Atlas of the Clouds of Tibet, such an achievement that it was translated and published in English as well as Chinese. (Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, Academic Press, New York, 1986)
Much as ethnographers had neither time nor imagination to come up with a Chinese ethnicity classification system, revolutionary China’s first “animal husbandry” administrators turned to standard rural development tools, notably the “stocking ratio” and the “carrying capacity” of given parcels of land, usually generalized across vast areas. Like language as the objective marker of ethnicity, sunlight, rainfall and grass growth were objectively quantifiable devices by which the ideal number of livestock could be determined. The ultimate number had to fulfill several criteria, which increasingly pulled in opposing directions. On one hand, revolutionary China was predisposed to believe that the vast grasslands could produce more; yet such production must also be sustainable in the long term, without degrading the grasslands. So the number had to be just right, not so low that grass would go to waste for want of teeth to graze it, nor so high that “grazing pressure” would destroy the resource on which it feeds.
In countries with predictable climatic variations, such approximations worked quite well, even if in practice, stocking ratios often had to be revised downwards after initial optimism as to what the land could be made to yield, primarily measured in edible animal protein, and proved too optimistic. Where climates were highly variable and unpredictable, with frequent extremes such as drought and flood, standardized formulae such as “stocking rates” or “carrying capacity”, averaged over spaces and times, proved to be highly misleading. European settler occupation of inland Australia, for example, spread deeper and deeper into the arid interior in the 1870s and 1880s, peaking in 1893 with a sheep population of 100 million. A decade later the number of sheep was half. (Donald 75) The calculated stock carrying capacity implemented by optimistically expanding pastoralists, was “unwarranted and the investment in it misplaced, a cause of instability not of progress. The sheep population was reduced by half and much of the Western District of new South Wales was virtually evacuated.” (Shaw 15)
The time when China found itself in actual possession of Tibet, in the 1950s, was a time of great inventiveness of devices for making growth of agricultural output necessary, measurable, feasible and naturalisable as self-evident laws of economic development. The Gross Domestic product had been invented, primarily by Kuznets, in the early 1940s, making available for the first time a territorially bounded measure of output comparable across states and across time. With GDP as a base, it did not take long to divide the world into the developed states, and their opposites, the underdeveloped. Thus underdevelopment came to be a major problem of the post WWII world, a problem on which the capitalist First World and Soviet bloc Second World agreed, while disagreeing about the roles of states and markets in solving it. Increased per capita output, a sustained secular improvement in material well-being, an increasing flow of goods and services, a significant self-sustained increase of per capita income were all conceptualised as definitions, in the 1950s, of the task of governments, in underdeveloped countries such as China. (Arndt 51)
As early as 1922 China’s leader Sun Yat-sen proposed just such an agenda, complete with railway lines crisscrossing the Tibetan Plateau. “His book The International Development of China was almost certainly the first to advocate economic development in something like the modern sense and use of the term.” (Arndt 16) But Sun had little control over China and none over Tibet; little access to investment capital, and many other difficulties. Yet he named the development agenda; which decades later the Communist Party took as its great project.
As early as 1956, before the violent liberation of Tibet had been completed, Zhou En-lai announced, at the start of the 2nd Five-Year Plan, that “In order to achieve a rational distribution of productive forces in our country, to promote the economic development of all areas, and to adapt the geographic disposition of our industries to the situation of our resources and national defence, it is necessary to build new industrial bases in the interior in a planned way.” (Eighth National Congress 289-90) Zhou listed the key projects, which included hydropower damming of the Yellow River along the Sanmen gorge in Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese) in northern Tibet, “and intensify geological work in Tibet to prepare the way for its industrial development.” The Communist Party Congress of 1956 was more specific, naming the extension of rail lines from China deep into oil-rich Xinjiang and the oil fields and industrially useful salt lakes of the Tsaidam Basin in northern Tibet: “It is required that 8000-9000 kilometres of new railways be built in these five years. The trunk railway lines from Lanzhou to our border in Xinjiang, from Baotou to Lanzhou and from Lanzhou to Tsaidam will be completed.” (Congress 244)
The industrialisation of Tibet began quickly, with much of northern Tibet incorporated into the Third Line zone of inland areas to be industrialised as a way of matching the military might of the US and then also the USSR, as far from both as possible, to minimise the danger of attack while military industries were built from nothing. China’s leaders very quickly decided they must develop the same capacity as the Americans and Soviets in making submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, able to roam the oceans globally, invulnerable to attack or even tracking their location in the depths, able to fire at will. That decision, made in secret in 1956, designated Tibet, specifically the largest lake in Tibet (and China), the Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Hu in Chinese, Kokonor in Mongolian) as the place for a secret atomic city developing and testing nuclear submarine missiles. In the hundreds of pages of the 2nd Five-Year Plan, the language throughout is of increased output, as a natural task and an urgent necessity, expressed always in the imperative indirect voice: “It is necessary that…”
The same discourse of increasing output per capita was applied to agriculture and pastoral nomadism. In a table called “Agricultural Economic Efficiency” China celebrated four decades of applying this new norm. In 1957 agricultural output per mu of land was worth RMB 52; by 1988 this had risen to RMB 228. The output of each “agricultural labourer” producing meat from pigs, sheep and cattle was 21 kilos per person in 1957, and 69 kg in 1988.(Changes and development in China 1949-1989, table 4-11).
The necessity for increasing output, within the constraints of rationality, meant being careful about the limits of land, climate, soils and so on. The speeches of Zhou En-lai and Liu Shao-chi to the 1956 Communist Party Congress are full of warnings about not going too fast; not forcing the pace of change beyond what is bearable. Their warnings were soon countermanded by an impatient Mao.
How to measure rationality on the grassland? The nomads themselves were of no help, not only because they had no standardised technical devices to measure productivity, but because nomadic society was self-evidently static and unproductive, in the eyes of the Party. Nomadism was a primitive stage, logically prior to the invention of farming, an arrested development that suggested arrested mentalities. Nomadic Tibet was ill suited to such modern tasks as feeding huge numbers of Chinese prisoners, workers, scientists, soldiers and pioneer farmers to the Tibetan Plateau, especially to Tsaidam basin and Qinghai province, who needed meat.
The balance between increasing output and destructive over-use, the ideal sweet spot of maximal production without overgrazing, generated the closely related devices of “carrying capacity” and “stocking rate”, both resulting in a number of animals per given area, with the differing kinds of animals given a formularised statistical weighting so that one yak is declared to be the equivalent of six sheep. One number could define the optimal herd size, be it in a small area or, by averaging, smoothing and generalising, over big areas too. This simplicity quickly enabled these disciplinary devices to be naturalised, as objective laws of nature, self-evident truths, drawing attention away from themselves, with the focus solely on the numbers they produced.
In countries with no accumulated wisdom of experience in the stocking of rangelands with cattle and sheep, stocking rates were often unrealistically high, until the rangelands collapsed. In arid South Australia, early settlers, from the 1850s through to early in the 20th century commonly stocked land at a rate of 100 sheep per square mile, though today 20 to 25 is regarded as the most the land can carry, and still regenerate. What has also been learned in the last century is that instead of a single number, applicable over a wide area and over a long time, is that “the key principle is matching animal numbers with land capability and feed availability, managing total grazing pressure and making sure animal numbers are reduced quickly and sufficiently when going into a dry period.” (Pasture Degradation and recovery in Australia’s Rangelands, 2004, 190) The calculation of what is appropriate is more nuanced, flexible, contextual and cognisant of shifting circumstances, especially climatic variation. The Australian strategy of quickly destocking pastures early in a drought in turn requires a huge road network, the availability of large numbers of heavy trucks, and cheap fuel, making it economic to take animals hundreds or thousands of kilometres to areas unaffected by drought.
Tibet also experiences great climatic unpredictability, with blizzards, gales and unseasonal snow cover the biggest dangers to livestock herds. But Tibetans cannot truck livestock 1000kms to agist them or avoid a cold snap. What Tibet does have is thousands of years of pastoralism, accumulated local knowledge of what is possible, and what the productive limits are. In Tibet, the new Chinese settlers could have sought and listened to the nomads, collecting “indigenous knowledge”, which development agencies worldwide now do routinely as an integral aspect of natural resource management policy formulation. This was never done. Chinese and Tibetans inhabited the same plateau, but lived entirely separate lives, in very different lifeworlds, with almost no communication. This has been so for 60 years, and there is as yet very little sign of dialogue, even though several international NGOs and aid agencies have done small scale dialogue and consultation workshops with nomads in Tibet, to show China that the process can be beneficial.
Outside China local knowledge is often regarded as important, even the key to success in biodiversity conservation or skilful resource management or risk management. But local knowledge is always, implicitly or explicitly, juxtaposed with “universal knowledge”, meaning objective scientific knowledge that is beyond human convention, is a law of nature, independent of culture and subjectivity. China’s great project, beginning in the 19th century and now peaking, was to capture and utilise the “universal knowledge” that made the west –and then Japan- so powerful that China could be humiliated. Throughout the 20th century China’s great pedagogic task was to learn, absorb, assimilate, reproduce and disseminate these seemingly universal truths that the west proclaimed as the source of its superior power over nature and humanity. It was insufficient for the state grasp the technical tools of modernity, all patriotic Chinese should learn the new universal truths of modernity and apply them, to build and save China.
Not only did this lead to deep ambivalence about Chinese tradition, it meant that knowledges not associated with modernity became invisible or, at best, recognised as trivial skills of subsistence. The knowledges of nonChinese ethnicities, living in unfamiliar environments, were especially invisible. Yet all knowledge is local. In an article of that title, professor of cyber scholarship Geoff Bowker tells a story of a young Yolngu Australian Aboriginal boy who, after an unpromising start, turned out to have an aptitude for classroom learning, even qualifying as a pilot. Yet he only began his schooling at the age of 11. “The guy messed up majestically in class at the start: he was put into seventh grade because he was 11 years old, but when asked to read numbers on the blackboard he couldn’t. He was sent back to grade one then bounced his way up to grade 11 in record time. Naturally people thought his progress was amazing and asked him how he was able to move through the grades so quickly, telling him how much better he would have done if he’d been at school from the beginning. He responded, “If I’d been at school from the beginning I’d never have been able to do any of this. Because I spent the first 11 years of my life in the country listening to the land with the constant intelligence of the wind, the climate, the waves, the vegetation and the changes of seasons in me and around me all the time, I learned how to think and be aware constantly. It’s that awareness which allowed me to zip through school and go further than anyone had gone before.’” (Geoffrey C Bowker, All Knowledge is Local, Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, 2. 2010)
Tibetan nomads say something similar. Tai Situ Rinpoche, originally from a remote nomadic area, for decades a Buddhist master with a global following, says:
“The natural pattern, where grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, in addition to the father and mother, take care of the child’s needs, provides stability with the natural environment. These people don’t have shopping centres, big highways, and so on. They live with nature, and they know the trees, flowers, and animals. The child sees his mother milking the cow to get the milk he is going to drink for breakfast. From the beginning he learns about the natural order of things from nature itself. A typical middle-class Tibetan family has two places to live: a highland estate for the summers and a lowland estate for the winters. The family has seasonal separations and reunions, since some family members stay mostly in one place, but most of the younger adults move back and forth. Hey experience sadness at parting and happiness at the real communication that takes place at meeting their friends and relatives once again.
“Tibetan children are exposed to natural reality all of the time. If they see a death, it is a real death. Death is not something that appears on a square screen, acted out by people who then get up and star in another movie. A child knows whether her jacket is made out of wool from the sheep, the very fine hair of the goat, or the skin or fur of some other animal. She saw how it was made by her mother or uncle, and maybe she helped clean, separate, or spin the wool.
“This kind of natural information has a deeper value that relates to a person’s inner development. When someone learns that it is necessary to wait half a year for certain flowers to grow, having watched them grow from seeds into plants, and having watched the leaves come out and buds open up –all in a certain, reliable period of time- an appreciation of the natural rhythm of things develops. One becomes aware at a deep level that things happen in a particular way and at the right time. This sort of appreciation builds the ability to accept other kinds of circumstances as they occur  throughout life. It helps a person understand the temporary nature of life and its phases.
“People who grow up in a changed, more artificial environment has difficulty understanding that life is simple. Everything becomes very complicated for them, and especially such things as love, caring for themselves and other people, having balanced relationships, discipline and so forth. Such basic states as happiness, sadness, death, and birth all become very complicated. Even though they might have books and video cassettes that discuss every critical aspect of life, it is indirect learning. People who have grown up with nature might not have seen any books, and they might not have the ability to explain what love, respect, or kindness is, but they know and feel these principles in a way that gives them stability. The professional therapist has originated from the need of modern people to find answers for all those major questions that didn’t need to be asked in the past. Nowadays the simple things that people once knew naturally have become areas of uncertainty.” (Tai Situpa, Relative World, Ultimate Mind, Shambhala 1992, 38-41)
These are not romantic fantasies of “living at one with nature” proposed by outsiders, they express insider learning’s from direct experiences and perceptions, unmediated by formal classroom categories and hierarchies of knowledge. This is what new China, despite its construction of a disciplinary state in Tibet, never noticed as knowledge useful to governance of the grasslands or of Tibetan lives.
In the absence of local knowledge, what did revolutionary China bring to its new task of governing the grasslands? New China had a distinctive mindset, often articulated explicitly as the General Line of Party policy, in documents that were meant to be carefully studied and then implemented, by cadres all over China. Very seldom was there recognition that the nomads and their grasslands were very different to the circumstances of China’s peasantry, all of whom were to be made to produce more, fast. China had an urgent agenda for all of rural China, which was to be the source of finance for the capital needed for China’s speedy industrialisation. Even though the revolution had been made in the name of the peasants, and in New China the peasants were extolled, along with workers and soldiers, as the only trustworthy classes, predatory extraction of surplus value from the peasants was top priority, and persisted for decades. Party leader Chen Yun put it bluntly in 1950: “China is an agricultural country; the investment for industrialisation has no alternative but to use agriculture. Industries need to invest, and agriculture is our only source of funds.” (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Important Literature Collection since the Founding of the Nation, vol 1, 1992, 267)
The urgency of industrialisation, the example of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the revolutionary utopian hope that mobilised human nature could overcome all obstacles, all led to a fixed conviction that rural China, the land and the people, could produce much more, if only they were organised rationally in collectives and communes, with land and labour aggregated into much bigger units of production, then allocated for maximum efficiency.
China had lost a century, the revolutionaries believed, in the race to prove itself the equal of the developed countries. While China took a century to bring to power a strong state, national unity, and a determination to achieve what Japan, facing similar challenges, had tackled almost a century earlier, everything was at last in place. A new sun was rising, destined to eclipse the Japanese imperialists and the western imperialists. By 1958, at the moment of China’s most decisive intervention in Tibetan nomadic lives, China’s official goal, for which everyone was to be mobilised, was to surpass England in 15 years and catch up to America. (Shi Cheng, China’s Rural Industrialisation Policy, 55-6)
This extraordinarily ambitious goal actually took 50 years, not 15. But in the 1950s, a new wind was blowing, often called by Chinese the communist wind (gongchanfeng in Chinese), and it could blow away anything old. The Party’s newspaper, People’s Daily, editorialised: “Strive for Top Speed. To develop our country’s social productive forces, realise national industrialisation and agricultural mode4rnisation at the highest speed is the basic spirit and soul of the General Line… and is an essential policy for socialism in our country.” (quoted in Shi Cheng, 55)
Speed and revolutionary certainty manifested as five winds or five styles, phrases used by Chinese to sum up the whirlwind they lived through: the communist wind, dictatorial commandism (mingling zhuyi), blind direction of production (xiazhihui shengchan), boastful exaggeration (fukua) and cadre privilege-seeking (ganbu teshu). Boastful announcements that production targets had been fulfilled or overfulfilled were the public face of a party-state insisting its commandism and fetishisiation of production as an end in itself proved the triumph of the revolution. The private face of the party was its selfishness and greed in ensuring that its functionaries got the best of everything. (Dali L. Yang, Surviving the Great Leap famine: the struggle over rural policy 1958-62, in Timothy Cheek ed., New Perspectives on State Socialism in China, 263)
These powerful energies explain why no one listened to the nomads. The low commodity output of Tibet, even the low human population of Tibet, were proof that Tibetans had made little of the potential of Tibet. A land of backward nomads, exploiting nobles and useless meditators clearly had lost any mandate to govern the grasslands, and was now destined to enter history, modernity and industrialisation, even if new China initially had very little idea as to what that might mean.
China was on a mission to save itself, to match its enemies in military power, to stand up, and to do all this at maximum speed. Old China had been disorganised, fragmented, and unproductive. Rational planning could liberate peasants and workers to utilise to the full their labour and achieve leaps in output. All the standard concepts of the machine age pointed to economies of scale, much bigger units of production able to own, operate and maintain heavy equipment to mechanise farming. Soviet style tractor stations, combine harvesters and other machines would make agriculture much more efficient, with greater surpluses available to the party-state. Aggregating peasants into production brigades, communes and state farms, all eating from a single mess hall, with cooking and childcare centralised, would leave rural workers free to devote themselves fully to production. It was a utopian dream, which peaked at exactly the time China gained, through extreme violence, full control over the Tibetan rangelands and nomad lives.
New China had great hopes for Tibet, without being able to specifically name what Tibet might contribute to China’s full speed modernisation. Surely such a big land must yield riches, if only they can be found and mastered? But what China encountered was utterly unfamiliar and daunting. As early as 1952, Mao wrote of the task ahead in Tibet: “Tibet compares poorly with Xinjiang, whether politically or economically. Xinjiang is well connected with the heartland of the country by motor roads. While several hundred thousand Han people live in Xinjiang, there are hardly any in Tibet, where our army finds itself in a totally different minority nationality area.” (Selected Works vol 5, 73-4) Mao’s secret directive is disappointed by Tibet, since it is “totally different.” But the Party, in the vanguard of changing everything, could not for long respond by leaving Tibet to be “totally different.” Despite being totally ignorant of the totally different, the party-state must proceed to change Tibet, without coming to know it first. Mao’s secret directive devotes itself then to the strategy of saying reassuring things to the Tibetan elite, while preparing secretly “to achieve a gradual, bloodless transformation of the Tibetan economic and political system”.
Mao’s only available frame was to see Tibet in purely political terms, as a land where the Chinese occupation, he acknowledges, was deeply unpopular, where “the Dalai clique… have an advantage over us in social influence.”His response was, for the moment, to go slowly, while appearing confident, even refusing to make any compromise with the “Dalai clique.” He ends his directive by ordering the Party in Tibet that ”in appearance we should take the offensive and should censure the demonstration (against Chinese rule) and the petition for being unjustifiable, but in reality we should be prepared to make concessions and go over to the offensive in the future when conditions are ripe.”
Mao was in possession of universal truth, was the singular agent of change, at the forefront of the laws of history, and thus needed no particular knowledge of Tibet. His entirely politicised understanding of the Tibetans, and their heartfelt protests, is expressed in a military language of feints, tactical retreats and frontal attack. He spends much of the directive explaining why impatient Party cadres in Tibet should bide their time. He outlines various shrewdly sketched scenarios: either the Tibetans will come to accept China’s occupation, or they will rebel. “Either will be favourable for us. The longer we delay, the stronger will be our position and the weaker theirs.” The seasoned military campaigner thus declared the only knowledge that needed to be known, that China would overturn Tibet at a moment of its choosing, and all other knowledge is incidental.
Tibet’s incorporation into China could not have come at a more inauspicious time. Not only were 1958 and 9, the years of the final Tibetan revolts and their ruthless crushing, the high tide of Mao’s determination to accelerate the revolution, Mao had a global agenda as well. In the aftermath of Soviet repudiations of Stalinism, Mao was sure the mantle of global leader of the forces of socialism had fallen on him, and he was determined to improve on the Stalinist model, establishing China’s ideological leadership of the whole socialist world. Speed was not only a means to proving the superiority of the Chinese model, and its fidelity to Stalinism, it was an end in itself, the surest demonstration that the largest population on earth could be rationally organised to out-produce any other nation, or social system. Nothing was to get in the way, certainly not an ethnicity whose numbers at most were one per cent of the population of China, scattered across their remote plateau.
Revolutionary China’s decisive 1959 break with the Soviet Union was not at all a break with the Soviet model; if anything it was a repudiation of Khrushchev’s treacherous “revisionism” and a return to Stalinist coercion as the essential method of accelerating progress. Nor did China’s break with revolution, after Mao’s death, end the ongoing reliance on Soviet models, especially the compulsion to theorise stages of development, with socialist man at the pinnacle of social evolution, and all ethnicities ranked on the ladder of progress. (Thomas P Bernstein ed., China Learns from the Soviet Union, Lexington 2010) The rigid hierarchy invented by Morgan, ethnographer of the Iroquois in the 1870s, became Stalin’s frame for the disciplinary management of ethnic difference, and then China’s, surviving into 21st century as the ever-presentt, self-evident rationale for treating the Tibetans as primitive and feudal.
Not only did China position itself as the exemplary revolutionary society, harbinger of the future of all mankind, it also reworked its ancient history as a magnetically powerful Han ethnicity that had for thousands of years attracted, assimilated and absorbed nearby nomadic societies. Historian Chen Liankai posited Han origins in indigenous, sedentary Huaxia culture in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys around 3000-2000 BC. Its superior culture and size, Chen said, drew in and ‘polymerized’ (juhe 聚合) surrounding nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples producing first the Han minzu following the Qin dynasty unification of 221 BC. Ever since, China has had the capacity to profoundly transform its more primitive neighbours, to alter even their molecular structure. (Chen Liankai, Preliminary research on the Zhonghua minzu (Zhonghua minzu yanjiu chutan), Beijing: Zhishi Chubanshe, 1994, pp.111-29, 275-288 & 288-311). Another metaphor used by Chinese ethnographers is to depict Han Chinese society as a snowball, accreting and absorbing other nationalities as it rolls over the landscape of China. (James Leibold, In Search of Han: Early Twentieth-century Narratives on Chinese Origins and Development, China Heritage Quarterly, 19, 2009)
This dualistic interplay of extremes serves actual pastoral nomads ill. Both extremes assume the nomads wander at random, is findable anywhere and nowhere. The nomad is a random particle, a shape shifter whose presence or absence eludes the objective scientific gaze of the state, like a particle in quantum physics whose ontological status depends on the viewer. It is the mobility of the nomad that is the defining characteristic, whether this is seen as negative or positive. Because the nomad is mobile and eludes the state, he is also without hierarchies, leaders or aristocracies; whether this is seen as further proof of nomadic unaccountability or as romantically attractive. Those who see nomads as primitive, their mobility a slavery to nature; and those who celebrate it as the headless state of not being governed, would be surprised to find nomads industrious, disciplined, careful risk managers who think ahead, calculate their value adding and plan accordingly. Living at the mercy of nature and in harmony with nature are two sides of one coin, neither of which is open to the abundant evidence that nomadic societies are commonly hierarchical, as David Sneath has shown at length. Both extremes assume society is the other to the state, for good or ill. Thus nomads themselves do not have their own states, hierarchies and power relations; they are undifferentiated tribes or hordes, all based on kin connections. Sneath’s evidence of social strata, rulers and ruled in nomadic societies suggests modernity has seen in nomads only what it is predisposed to see.
Mobility has become more fashionable than ever, in academic circles, where mobilities are studied as a key conduit for understanding the connections, assemblages, and practices that both frame and generate contemporary everyday life. Thus the yearnings of Chinese peasants for New York are seen as constituting 21st century modernity. An academic study of these magical yearnings for a transformed life announces itself as “an exploration of how mobility as a key trope in projects of capitalist development and modernity is currently lived in post-Mao China among a rural-coastal population situated on the mercurial edge between global flows and parochial closures.” (Julie Chu, Cosmologies of Credit, 2011, 4) Global capitalism requires mobility of us all, not only the physical mobility of the peasant who moves to an urban factory, but also a mobility of identity, as capitalism restlessly creates and destroys whole industries and regions where production flourishes or declines. Global capitalism morphs into the new control society of flows, making us flow along, reinventing ourselves as necessary. The new order, as true of new China as of the older metropoles of modernity, engineers the consent of the governed through its use of metaphors of mobility and the opportunities mobility makes possible. Yet global capitalism, contrary to classic capitalist conceptions of flows of labour and capital to spaces of highest efficiency, also disrupts flows, especially human flows, behind mercantilist barriers and state boundaries. The grand narrative of mobility as the responsibility of the citizens of modernity is in no way contradicted by the actual prohibitions on mobility wielded by states. China encourages peasants to leave their subsistence farms, and in recent decades taxed them to extract surplus value for investment in industrialisation, forcing them off land that could then be mobilised for higher efficiency. Official discourse encouraged mobility, a willingness to plunge into the sea of commerce, even at a cost of eating the bitterness of disrupted families, low wages, job insecurity and uncertain futures, because this is how patriotic citizens improve their human quality and contribute to nation building. Yet the same party-state persists in inefficient statist, top-down allocations of labour, maintaining regulatory distinctions between ethnicities, rural and urban residents, and genders. The party-state positions itself as the embodiment of scientific development, a higher rationality, the peak of human quality incarnate, the exemplar all should aspire to. In this sense it is far from becoming the compliance society Foucault sees as emerging in the metropoles, and more closely resembles the old disciplinary society in which social engineering is the state’s pedagogy. The party-state perpetuates the tradition of the dynastic annalists in claiming authorship of the lives of its citizens, maintaining vigorous agency in shaping individual lifeworlds.
Mobility does not mean freedom, in the sense that modernist romantics imagine the nomad lives a life of freedom; but nor is the mobility of contemporary liquid modernity merely a choiceless compliance with the hegemonic project of the all-powerful party-state that engineers the consent of the governed, according to its predetermined agenda. Despite the ingrained habit of Confucianist states to imagine themselves in command of all lives, all destinies, contemporary China no longer fits such a simplistic totalising mould, if it ever did. Although the regime insists on taking credit for all successes, and censoring mention of failures, street level China has its own bold, emergent, entrepreneurial flows of capital, land, labour and human capital that are barely regulated by the party-state. The vibrant, even chaotic, speculative, high-risk new China acts first to seize opportunities, and only later generates a rationale, such as statist authorship of what worked.
But in Tibet, the nomads languish in the old disciplinary society, where little happens outside the purview and surveillance of the state, so intensive is the investment in technologies of control and disrupted mobility. The immobilisation of the nomads is but part of the immobilisation of Tibetan society, into closely watched small neighbourhoods, where all movement is monitored by ever-present surveillance cameras watched by huge numbers of immigrant Chinese security officials who seldom speak Tibetan but take behaviour on camera as signifier of mental intent, and punish accordingly. The panopticon project of early industrial modernity lives on in China’s remotest provinces, where the apparatus of disciplining the masses results in tertiary sector employment dominating the whole economy. Prison guards, security agencies, file keepers, monitors of behaviour public and private: these are bigger than the nomadic, farming, mining and industrial economies of Tibet put together, as Andrew Fischer reminds us.
The disciplinary society China has created in Tibet not only confines people in institutions, but has made all of urban Tibet an institution, locked down, segmented into quadrats, under constant surveillance even when people are at home. To be Tibetan is to be suspect, requiring surveillance and discipline. To be an educated Tibetan, even a cadre or minor official is to be especially suspect, forever monitored for any sign of disloyalty. The best to be hoped for is to be provisionally free to circulate, a right the party-state can always withdraw. As Kafka reminds us, in disciplinary society, apparent acquittal, between confinements, is as much as can be achieved. China’s disciplinary society can always declare one guilty of revealing state secrets, which covers anything declared retroactively to be a state secret. The definition of state secret is a state secret.
To Foucault, disciplinary societies are creatures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reaching their peak early in the 20th. But the disciplinary society has an afterlife, its most total instantiation being Tibet, complete with the party-state’s teleology of Tibet’s compulsory journey from darkness to light, from primitivity to standardised urban comfort. The relocation of nomads into roadside line villages en route to market, is just part of the grand plan. It may be that “we’re in the midst of a breakdown of all sites of confinement –prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family. Educational reforms, industrial reforms, hospital, army, prison reforms; but everyone knows these institutions are in more or less terminal decline.” (Deleuze, Negotiations 178) But in Tibet it is as if Mao’s vision lives on, of the great sage who inscribes his beautiful thoughts onto the minds of the blank masses.
This is far from the mobility of global capitalism, in which “there’s no universal state, precisely because there’s a universal market of which states are the centres, the trading floors.” (Deleuze, Negotiations, 172) The market is the sole universal, making almost impossible the process of even imagining any other ways modernity might constitute itself. So naturalised, automatic and unreflective is the inbuilt model of the market, all else seems shadowy, or archaic or romantic. Nomadic existence may well be all three in many minds, a vestigial remnant of a romantic golden age that cannot possibly be relevant to anyone in a globalised interdependent economy.