Andre Wakefield


On his book The Disordered Police State: German Cameralism as Science and Practice

Cover Interview of November 12, 2009

In a nutshell

The narcissistic present forever seeks itself in the past.  Though the living try to winnow meaning from the chaos of history, they often discover only themselves among the dead generations.  But in a world where extinction, not survival, is the rule, the history of failed possibilities and forsaken paths dwarfs the stingy determinism of the linear past.  My book is about lost and forgotten things.

Among the casualties of history is an extinct species of professional bureaucrat called the “cameralist.”  There’s nothing sexy about eighteenth-century German bureaucrats, but in their day these self-appointed scientists of the state imagined that they were in the vanguard of history.  The Disordered Police State is about them.

Most people today, even in Germany, have never heard of cameralists, but they were a big deal once, members of a budding professional class, like doctors and lawyers.  Universities, catering to these new administrative professionals, hired professors, who in turn developed elaborate curriculums to train them.  The textbooks, lectures and treatises that these professors wrote have come to be known as the “cameral sciences.”  The books published by cameralists—and there are thousands of them—rest largely forgotten on the shelves of German libraries. That does not mean, however, that these sciences of state have been without effect.  On the contrary, they have served to sustain some of our most robust narratives about science, state building, and modernity.  Scientific administrators, rationalizing and bureaucratizing the backward lands of central Europe, appear in our histories as the shock troops of modernity.

The Disordered Police State cuts against the grain of these histories.  In it I argue that we cannot take the sciences of state at face value, because they often served as fiscal propaganda for treasuries and governments.  Cameralists, on the hunt for salaries and positions, served as public relations men for the territories in which they lived and worked.  Their writings painted rosy pictures of princes dedicated to the common good; but behind closed doors, in the secret spaces of princely chambers, they dedicated themselves to fleecing the people.

In the guts of the book I demonstrate how it all worked, tracking my protagonists through the fields, forests, mines and universities of early modern Germany.  I examine what they published, and I compare it to what they did.  In case after case, scientific administrators wrote one thing and did another.  They wrote about the general welfare while defrauding the state; they published on scientific agriculture while mismanaging farms; and they painted beautiful pictures of well-ordered police states even as they benefited from a disordered world.  We have mostly taken their writings at face value, as if their “descriptive” and “practical” sciences reflected actually existing things.  By questioning the status of these sources, my book suggests that many of our histories about state and science in the Enlightenment have been built on rotten foundations.