- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (February 8, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300078153
- ISBN-13: 978-0300078152
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
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Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Paperback – February 8, 1999
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James C. Scott's research for this book began with an examination of the tensions between state authorities and various "unstable" individuals throughout history, from hunter-gatherer tribes to Gypsies to the homeless. He soon became fascinated, however, by the recurring patterns of failure and authoritarianism in certain social engineering programs aimed at bringing such people fully into the state's fold. Soviet collectivization, the Maoist Great Leap Forward, the precisely planned city of Brasilia--these and other projects around the world, while deeply ambitious, extracted immeasurable tolls on the people they were designed to help.
One of the most important common factors that Scott found in these schemes is what he refers to as a high modernist ideology. In simplest terms, it is an extremely firm belief that progress can and will make the world a better place. But "scientific" theories about the betterment of life often fail to take into account "the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability" that Scott views as essential to an effective society. What high modernism lacks is metis, a Greek word which Scott translates as "the knowledge that can only come from practical experience." Although metis is closely related to the concept of "mutuality" found in the anarchist writings of, among others, Kropotkin and Bakunin, Scott is careful to emphasize that he is not advocating the abolition of the state or championing a complete reliance on natural "truth." He merely recognizes that some types of states can initiate programs which jeopardize the well-being of all their subjects.
Although the collapse of most socialist governments might lead one to believe that Seeing Like a State is old news, Scott's analysis should prove extremely useful to those considering the effects of global capitalism on local communities. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
...a tremendous achievement, easily one of the most impressive and important books of recent years. -- Reason, Jesse Walker
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Top Customer Reviews
Scott's focus is on "seeing" like a (high modernist) state; the question this book asks is: how does such a state see, and what does state-like perception systematically miss? Scott argues the state's vision is limited to the conscious, the rational, and the abstract - it cannot see beyond what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called "the Platonic fold." (See The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable) This vision is identical to what continental philosophers refer to as the "objective gaze." The unconscious, the organic, the ecological and the folk-wise are invisible to the modernist bureaucracy. To make these invisible elements rationally "legible," the state reaches out and actively reduces them to known quantities. This allows the state some limited control over them, but in the process any emergent systematic properties are destroyed.
It is tempting to conclude that this book is a generalized critique of government. It is not. The mistakes Scott identifies are characteristic only of a certain type of regime, the high modernist state. High modernism, as Scott identifies it, is a sort of irrational confidence in objective rationality. It becomes possible on a large scale only after the Enlightenment, and especially after the advent of "scientific" management. It is epitomized not only by Stalin, but by Robert McNamara's Department of Defense, and the US Bureau of Reclamations. Nor is it limited to states. Systematic flaws exist in the perception of any large hierarchical organization that makes decisions on the basis of abstract calculative rationality. As such, this is ultimately a much more profound critique than Hayek's.
DeLong is right that this book is not as well-written or organized as it could have been, but the synthesis of Hayek and Heidegger is absolute genius. It makes the book a classic in my view.