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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
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.
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.
I saw in another review a criticism that the examples were not convincing, which I disagree with. The examples seem proper and on topic to me. They include modernist theories of urban design, the Russian revolution, and agricultural "reforms" in the Soviet Union and Tanzania. Another reviewer thought Scott is making the same argument as Hayek, but that's not really true though they're certainly more similar than the author is willing to admit.
My major criticism of this book is that it's about 60-70% too long. There's a lot of repetition and musing that could have been cut.