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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 the Audio CD edition.
"One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades. . . . A fascinating interpretation of the growth of the modern state. . . . Scott presents a formidable argument against using the power of the state in an attempt to reshape the whole of society."—John Gray, New York Times Book Review
"Illuminating and beautifully written, this book calls into sharp relief the nature of the world we now inhabit."—New Yorker
"James C. Scott has written a powerful, and in many insightful, explanation as to why grandiose programs of social reform, not to mention revolution, so often end in tragedy—the Soviet disaster being the textbook case. . . . He has produced an important critique of visionary state planning."—Robert Heilbroner, Lingua Franca
"[An] important book. . . . The author's choice of cases is fascinating and goes well beyond the familiar ones like Soviet collectivization."―Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs
"In a treatment that can only be termed brilliant, [Scott] has produced a major contribution to developmental literature. . . . This is a book of seminal importance for comparative politics and, indeed, for the social sciences. Highly recommended."—Choice
"Mr. Scott tells the story in witty, sparkling prose of these (Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, among others) relentless social engineers and how they tried to impose for all eternity a perfect social order or an urban blueprint, regardless of human cost and unremitting human refractoriness."―Washington Times
"An important and powerful work that deserves to be read by anyone interested in large-scale public planning. . . . Among the book's virtues are its lucid style, deep learning, and wide range of fascinating cases."―Gideon Rose, Washington Monthly
"Where Seeing Like a State is original, and often startling so, is in its meticulous accumulation of empirical evidence that describes the failure of grandiose state projects to improve the human condition."—Brian C. Anderson, Public Interest
"Seeing Like a State is a worldly, academic synthesis of the destructive hubris of large-scale rational planning. . . . What Scott does that is brilliant is talk about how states and large institutions acquire the knowledge that they ultimately use to govern."—Michael Schrage, Across the Board
"Its global focus, its attention to issues of environment and economic development too often ignored by non profits scholars, and its impressive grasp of how organizations work, recommend it to anyone seriously interested in the future of public life."—Peter Dobkin Hall, ARNOVA News
"Scott’s book is a paean to human liberty, a very complicated paean. . . . This book [owes] much of its value to the details of the particular case studies, and to Scott’s enthusiasm and ingenuity in seeing links among apparently different human projects. He has written a remarkably interesting book on social engineering."—Cass R. Sunstein, New Republic
"In Seeing Like a State James Scott has given us powerful new paradigms of state action and popular resistance. His work is sure to inspire new thinking and research in history and social sciences."—Fred Murphy, Reader’s Catalog
"Brilliant . . . [Scott] has produced a major contribution to developmental literature . . . this is a book of seminal importance for comparative politics and indeed, for the social sciences."—Choice
"Scott’s book . . . is an important and powerful work that deserves to be read by anyone interested in large-scale public planning. . . . Among the book’s virtues are its lucid style, deep learning, and wide range of fascinating cases."—Gideon Rose, Washington Monthly
"Seeing Like a State is a worldly, academic synthesis of the destructive hubris of large-scale rational planning. . . . Scott . . . takes a few powerful but basic themes and builds a persuasive case against what he calls 'High Modernism.' High Modernism, in essence, is the ideology of grand rational planners whose initiatives are based on the perfectibility of man. What Scott does that is brilliant is talk about how states and large institutions acquire the knowledge that they ultimately use to govern."—Michael Schrage, Across the Board
"James Scott is one of the most original and interesting social scientists whom I know. So it is no surprise that Seeing Like a State is a broad ranging, theoretically important, and empirically grounded treatment of the modern state. For anyone interested in learning about this fundamental tension of modernity and about the destruction wrought in the twentieth century as a consequence of the dominant development ideology of the simplifying state, high modernism, Seeing Like a State is a must read."—Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and author of Hitler's Willing Executioners
"A broad-ranging, theoretically important, and empirically grounded treatment of the modern state and its propensity to simplify and make legible a society which by nature is complex and opaque. For anyone interested in learning about this fundamental tension of modernity and about the destruction wrought in the twentieth century as a consequence of the dominant development ideology of the simplifying state, this is a must-read."—Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners
"The 'perfection' Scott so rightly and with such tremendous skill and erudition debunks in his book he himself has nearly reached, as far as positing and presenting the problem is concerned. The case of what the order-crazy mind is capable of doing and why we need to stop it from doing it has been established 'beyond any reasonable doubt' and with a force that cannot be strengthened."—Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus professor, University of Leeds
"A tour de force. . . . Reading the book delighted and inspired me. It's not the first time Jim Scott has had that effect."—Charles Tilly, Columbia University
"Stunning insights, an original position, and a conceptual approach of global application. Scott's book will at once take its place among the decade's truly seminal contributions to comparative politics."—M. Crawford Young, University of Wisconsin, Madison
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So governments that wanted to grow imposed lots of standards on people. That sometimes helped peasants by making their taxes fairer and more predictable, but often trampled over local arrangements that had worked well (especially complex land use agreements).
I found that part of the book to be a fairly nice explanation of why an important set of conflicts was nearly inevitable. Scott gives a relatively balanced view of how increased legibility had both good and bad effects (more efficient taxation, diseases tracked better, Nazis found more Jews, etc.).
Then Scott becomes more repetitive and one-sided when describing high modernism, which carried the desire for legibility to a revolutionary, authoritarian extreme (especially between 1920 and 1960). I didn't want 250 pages of evidence that Soviet style central planning was often destructive. Maybe that conclusion wasn't obvious to enough people when Scott started writing the book, but it was painfully obvious by the time the book was published.
Scott's complaints resemble the Hayekian side of the socialist calculation debate, except that Scott frames in terms that minimize associations with socialism and capitalism. E.g. he manages to include Taylorist factory management in his cluster of bad ideas.
It's interesting to compare Fukuyama's description of Tanzania (in Political Order and Political Decay) with Scott's description. They both agree that villagization (Scott's focus) was a disaster. Scott leaves readers with the impression that villagization was the most important policy, whereas Fukuyama only devotes one paragraph to it, and gives the impression that the overall effects of Tanzania's legibility-increasing moves were beneficial (mainly via a common language causing more cooperation). Neither author provides a balanced view (but then they were both drawing attention to neglected aspects of history, not trying to provide a complete picture).
My advice: read the SlateStarCodex book review, don't read the whole book.
The first section of the book is a well-researched look at how it suits the purposes of centralized governments to make the citizenry more "legible" - speaking the same language, living sedentary lifestyles in villages, using the same currency and measurement systems. Legibility yields a population that is no longer independent.
The book then goes on to show how a citizenry that is wholly legible becomes dependent on the state and is quickly beggared by an insatiable government. Using the examples of Stalin's collectivization, African ujamaa socialist villagization, US Indian policy, and experimental farming, Scott makes his point again and again.
His comparison is with "high modernist" architecture and city planning, which yields depressing, failed, unlivable places relying on unplanned slums and black market operators for any economic activity. High modernism, with its faith in experts, fails. It "looks" modern, and for faith-based modernizers, looks are enough.
Reality is messy. Human relations in an econmy are messy. They are governed by individuality, local knowledge, and obscure customs that "look" primitive but are time-tested, experimentally-driven winning solutions. Individuals must rely on their initiative, wisdom, prudence, and responsiveness to make a living. "High modernist" solutions wipe that clean and try to substitute reliance on government plans constructed from afar, based on aesthetics, not reality.
High modernism does not foster responsible decision-making, social independence, reasonable negotiation traits, or local competence in the citizenry. It serves only to quell dissent (often by force)in the local communities. The parallels with Obamacare are striking and ominous.
The most interesting conceit in the book is that the leftist naysayers Scott likes to cite are women - Jacobs, Luxembourg - who have special insights and intuitions into the problems of top-down socialist planning. A women's intuition sort of thing?
I have ordered two of his books on resistance:
"Weapons of the Weak" Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance
"Domination and the Arts of Resistance" Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
For more on this topic, read "Why Governments Fail So Often" Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better