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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.
"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
"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
"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
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Although Scott is focused specifically on high modernist ideology and its uses in the 20th century, there are several themes in this book that directly connect to our readings from previous weeks. Scott frequently talks about the belief in high modernism as if it were a faith. As with the Calvinists and the French Revolutionaries, these men and women believed that there was a problem (backwardness) that needed to be fixed and they held the solution to that problem (modernization). As with our discussion of French modernization, Scott highlights the importance of homogenization. However, Scott goes beyond cultural and linguistic homogenization as ways to exert political and financial control. He also emphasizes how the high modernist preoccupation with homogenization was manifest in agricultural practices, with polycropping being considered backwards and large monocropped farms being seen as the future of agriculture.
One of the strongest parts of Scott’s work is his emphasis on diversity. Scott takes great effort to explain the myopic view of high modernism and how such intense focus on certain aspects of any subject to the exclusion of other parts of the larger picture had such a detrimental impact on the success of high modernist projects. He successfully argues that high modernist plans for city building, collectivation and villagization failed to consider the impact of humans, who were likely to resist change, adapt the new rules to meet their own personal needs and publicly rebel against forced control. Scott uses Jane Jacob’s critique of planned cities as a basis for much of his criticism, citing her thesis that a diverse city where streets filled a variety of purposes was a healthier community.
One of the things that struck me as quiet odd about Scott’s work was his emphasis on gender in the critique of high modernism. He takes great care in emphasizing how important he thinks Jacob’s “woman’s eye” is to her frame of reference and ability to critique high modernist city planning. (p. 138) He also chooses women critics of Lenin and Bolshevism (Rosa Luxemburg and Aleksandra Kolontay). I think that the arguments put forth by these women are strong critiques of high modernist ideology and that Scott makes excellent use of these arguments throughout his book. However, I am skeptical of how he chooses to present these arguments. While I admit that I am no expert in high modernism or gender studies, I find it hard to believe that there were no men who were critical of high modernism, or for that matter, no women who espoused firm high modernist beliefs.
I think that Scott’s work also does an excellent job of highlighting the fact that despite the horrific outcomes of many of these plans, the goal of modernization was not to starve millions of people to death. These men and women were acting based on a system of beliefs they thought held the answer to solving the world’s problems. It is also easy to take the logic of high modernism, with its emphasis on legibility and homogenization, and see the connections to a global system that emphasized cultural homogenization and espoused forced migration and deportation, eventually leading to genocide.
In addition to the educational value, it is an absolute page turner, filled with exciting historical moments that will be brand new to most American readers. I heartily recommend it to anyone.