The Government of Mistrust
Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam
University of Wisconsin Press 2015
When a revolutionary party aims to take administrative control of the countryside, what kinds of devices, training and documents does it use? And what are their consequences? In The Government of Mistrust: Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), Ken MacLean explains that confounded by its inability to get a clear reading of its own practices, let alone those of the rural population, the party/state in Vietnam has since the late 1920s layered varied and oftentimes conflicting approaches to the management of information one on top of the other. Although the approaches have differed, all have been premised on a lack of trust: of villagers, of cadres, and of the integrity of the processes of data collection and interpretation themselves. The government of mistrust both produces and is reproduced by the forms of documentation on which it relies.
Ken MacLean joins New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to discuss the functions of “legibility devices” in state practice, the periodization of Vietnam’s modern history, the categories “exemplary” and “deviant”, the debate over reform from above and reform from below, and how the government of mistrust persists despite remaining partially illegible to itself.