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Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

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Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural "modernization" in the Tropics—the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not—and cannot—be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a "high-modernist ideology" that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large- scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.

445 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

James C. Scott

31 books685 followers
James C. Scott is an American political scientist and anthropologist specializing in comparative politics. He is a comparative scholar of agrarian and non-state societies, subaltern politics, and anarchism.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 560 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,503 reviews227 followers
September 25, 2011
This is the kind of book that restores my faith in academic theory. It should be required reading for anybody interested in the exercise of power, economic development, or large scale systems.

In Seeing Like a State, Scott explores how attempts to radically transform and improve the human condition have failed. He identifies the central problem of statecraft and of government as one of legibility; the state must make its citizens and their activities visible before it can appropriate revenue and orchestrate any plan for the general welfare. The problem comes when this necessary evil is tied to an ideology of High Modernism, an authoritarian central government, and a prostrate civil society.

High Modernism is a belief in a technocratic and scientific rationality; that there is one correct answer for every situation. But there is no such thing as a universal generalization, every village, field, and person is a unique individual. The state's attempts at improvement rapidly become an effort to standardize society, and make every unit of interest behave identically. This process of reducing reality to schematic agents and cadastral maps is inherently one of violence, discarding generations of carefully accumulated local >metis (craft) in favor of the interests of the center. Local people are inevitably coerced into conforming with the modern grid, since it is easier to make people fit the categories than categories fit the situation.

This is not a hopeful book, but it does provide a valuable glimpse at the functioning of the most dangerous ideology of the 20th century--that of the centrally directed transformation.
Profile Image for Ian.
762 reviews65 followers
March 15, 2021
The author of this book has said, in another context, that he sees the world “with an anarchist squint”. This book is a polemic, but within that context it’s well worth reading. One other general comment – the book was first published in 1998 and I did think it was slightly dated. I haven’t changed my rating because of that, but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of reading it.

In a well-written opening section, the author suggests that the move from pre-modern to modern states can be seen in terms of the “legibility” of society to the central authority. Many aspects of pre-modern societies might be said to have privileged local knowledge over state knowledge. The move to a modern society involved a reversal of that privilege, primarily to ensure the state had better information for the purposes of taxation and conscription.

There were also good reasons for some of these changes, such as increasing the food supply and preventing disease. Initially these might be seen as benefiting the state, since they increased the population and thereby the tax base and the state’s armed forces, but as time moved on a better society began to be seen as desirable in itself. From this laudable aim was born the main target of the author’s criticism, what he calls, “High Modernism”. Broadly speaking this is the belief that an intellectual and technocratic elite can devise the correct answers to social problems via the application of science and technology. High modernists have a disregard for the views of ordinary people, whom they see as uneducated and backward-looking.

The author discusses the cities of Brasilia and Chandigarh as examples of high modernism applied to architecture and urban planning. The visual form of the city, architectural uniformity, vehicular traffic, and separation of function were prioritised over the needs of the population. He points to Le Corbusier as the high priest of this movement and compares him unfavourably with the campaigner Jane Jacobs.

Le Corbusier may have wanted to redesign the city, but the author’s next target is Lenin, who wanted to redesign the whole of society. He was a High Modernist who thought that he could create a new Utopia, but only through the exercise of “iron discipline” upon “the masses”, who required direction from the Party hierarchy. As with the previous chapter, the author contrasts Lenin with another figure, this time Rosa Luxemburg. Although she shared Lenin’s aim of revolution, she was critical of Lenin’s suppression of free speech, free assembly etc, and accurately predicted how the Soviet Union would turn out.

Soviet collectivisation and the programme of ujamaa in Tanzania are given as examples of High Modernist thinking that went disastrously wrong. Both were economically catastrophic and of course came with huge human costs, especially in the Soviet case.

The agricultural reforms described above were so inefficient that much of the food supply had to come via illegal black markets. Although the USSR and Tanzania were extreme examples, the author contends that all centrally imposed rules and processes operate as subsystems of, and are parasitic to, informal systems. In large companies and organisations, workers invariably adopt informal practices that circumvent the rules, thereby allowing the organisation to operate with at least a degree of efficiency. The author continues by citing the example of factory workers engaging in industrial action via a “work to rule”. By strictly following the procedures set down by the company, employees can reduce production to a snail’s pace.

The author does concede that there are some circumstances where central planning works best, such as space exploration, or a mass vaccination campaign.

The book concludes with an appeal for society to give more weight to “metis”, an Ancient Greek word which roughly equates to “skill” or “craft”, and which my dictionary says is the origin of the French word métier. Metis (which it seems is pronounced “meetis”) is the knowledge and ability that comes to an individual from years of practice, and which the author argues is superior to formal training.

I think that people with differing political views might each take something from this book. Those on the left would enjoy it, provided their own beliefs were rooted in community activism rather than top-down state socialism. Meanwhile libertarians might enjoy the takedowns of “big government”. If you’re an admirer of big government, and you are thinking of reading the book, prepare to have your beliefs challenged.
Profile Image for Ed .
479 reviews33 followers
March 21, 2012
This is an amazing book--I haven't been this enthused about a social science text since I read Braudel's "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" about one zillion years ago.

The first chapter of “Seeing like a State” is a brilliant tour de force of how James C. Scott approaches his thesis and his method for analyzing it. Looking at the “acknowledgements” page of the book gives one indication why this chapter is so good: it has been worked and reworked a number of times, appearing as an article in a learned journal, an essay in a book edited by the author, a public lecture sponsored by the Centre for Asian Studies, a chapter in a textbook and a paper delivered at a conference. While it might be possible to say that Scott has dined out on state simplification, the establishment of cadastral maps and population registers, the invention of freehold land tenure, the standardization of language and the widespread use of family names, it would be selling this book very short. All of these things and more made the population and its natural and built environments more legible, rational and standard than it had been before the rise of the centralized state. The needs of the state: conscription, taxation and prevention of rebellion, could only be served if there were central planning and control over what had been the anarchy of rural and village life.

Taken to extremes—a not unusual occurrence, the failures of which never lead to appropriate lessons learned by those in power—the drive for centralization has led to famine, mass death, the collapse of formerly great civilizations and widespread destruction of culture and the ability of the population to reproduce itself. “Seeing like a State” examines the ideology and practice behind some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

Scott sees four elements that must be present for state power to be unleashed in such destructive ways:

1) The centralized, transformative organizing of nature and society and subjecting it to administrative rules;

2) A high-modernist ideology that is overly confident about scientific and technological progress, expansion of production, mastery of nature and rational design of the social order;

3) An authoritarian state willing and able to use the full weight of its power to bring designs into being; and

4) Crippled civil society with no capacity to resist. War, revolution, economic collapse and national liberation struggles make populations more receptive and weaken traditional power centers. Examples are the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the resettlement of millions of Tanzanian peasant farmers into Ujamaa villages in the 1960s and the imposition of European/American monoculture, quasi-industrial agriculture on farmers in West Africa and Central America. The war by the new Soviet Russia against the invading western armies, the decades long struggle for independence in Africa and the undermining and overthrow of elected (or at least popular) Third World governments preceded these ecological and human catastrophes.

Scott has no shortage of villains. Among them are Vladimir Lenin, Julius Nyerere, the architect Le Corbusier and, most likely, anyone who has drawn a mid-six figure salary from the International Monetary Fund. Good guys (actually good gals) are not quite as abundant. They include Rosa Luxemburg, urban planner Jane Jacobs and agricultural theorist Albert Howard.

Scott writes elegant prose—he makes several closely reasoned chapters concerning agriculture interesting for their content and fascinating for their style.
Profile Image for Jayesh .
179 reviews104 followers
April 7, 2017
Definitely one of the best non-fiction books I have read lately. So much food for thought - so much to rethink about how I look at the world.
I got interested in reading this book because of a series of tweets in response to https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-... about how both stats and stories have limits and can't help us comprehend the full complexity of the truth.

So the book starts of with a description of "scientific forestry" in 18th century Prussia wherein some smart people realized that the timber yield from a forest could be maximized if they replaced the chaotic forest ecosystem with a rectangular grid of Norway spruce. Everything seemed going spectacularly well until the next generation of spruce was planted and the impoverished ecosystem couldn't support them anymore. Yet this "forestry" was exported all across the globe especially by the colonial masters.

As the book progresses, we see this pattern repeated often. It's there in Le Corbusier's city design and Soviet collective farms. And these schemes always seem to fail. The book gives a two part answer: 1) Centralized powers are always trying to make the world "legible" since they are easier to monitor and control 2) Aesthetics and pseudo-science of "high-modernism" pretending to be actual science - instead of empiricism and looking at the data, the most rational and efficient way of doing things is assumed to be putting things in a grid. Whether it actually leads to any functional improvement is unquestioned. Instead of a thoughtful consideration of trade-offs, we are left with a singular view imposed as "best for all". Due to this hubris of naive "best for all" paternalism and the belief that one is dealing with scientific truths it leads to lack of tolerance for any dissent.

This was the book that actually helped me understand the Gandhian argument for local self sufficiency - the "metis" that people develop over time living in a local space.

Yet, Scott is very aware of how cities of yore - the organic livable cities - unlike those of Le Corbusier's, had a life-expectancy in the forties because everyone was so packed together and dying of cholera. He himself says how Green Revolution, which took ideas from scientific farming methods, helped to provide food for millions of people who otherwise would have starved. Even modern timber farms seem fairly successful. So what's the point? I think Scott is trying to raise a more subtle point - understanding that all science is model building and improving the human condition calls for coordination between the centralized state modernism and the local "metis" of all kinds. Another point is that incremental changes are much better than the revolutionary ones that claim to fix all problems.

I see similar issues in the world of software. For example, the recent back and forth about rewriting curl in a safer language. Or the trouble with metrics in ad-networks. Same thing in surface level discussions about interpretability in AI or human medicine missing the "long tail" of complexities and interactions.
I think we as scientists tend to forget that humans are always solving a multi-objective problem and simple optimization schemes for a single metric are bound to fail.

Other interesting reviews:
1. http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/16/...
2. https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcod...

Author's own summary:
Profile Image for Anders.
84 reviews20 followers
July 9, 2007
This book finds Scott resting on his laurels a bit too much, writing a book which falls awkwardly between pop-academia a la Guns, Germs and Steel, and full-on academia. Too much simplifying to hold a lot of water in the academy, but still too opaque for the masses. The first few chapters of this book are pretty good, but by the end, you start to catch on that his argument is pretty simplistic, and sort of flawed. I read this at the same time,. chapter by chapter, as Timothy Mitchell's Rule of Experts and I found them to both be making similar points, though Mitchell's book is far superior in every way.

Scott uses an extremely diverse set of evidence, pulling his examples from agronomy, foresting, urban planning, Soviet propaganda, Tanzanian state-making, Socratic philosophy... it goes on and on and becomes tiring to jump all over the globe and time spectrum.

The basic idea is interesting: large-scale social planning efforts undertaken with simplistic understandings of the people and places they are meant to serve are bound to fail, largely and spectacularly. Read the introduction. Read chapter three on urban planning. They're both five-star material-- compelling, in-depth and fascinating. Skim the rest and skip the last two chapters.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,650 followers
August 23, 2018
I think the book is a bit dated, but perhaps it was so influential that its ideas seeped into everything else. It's a solid and almost unassailable thesis--modernizing states overlooked the knowledge of local farmers and other people for central planning and caused all sorts of terrible outcomes. Agreed.

However, at times I think he over extends the thesis to disparage all forms of government planning where his facts and data only apply to land management, farming, and other issues of local culture. Moreover, he doesn't quite address the what now? Now that we've lived with hundreds of years of central planning, besides lament the lost traditions, how do we undo the damage? Still, this is a worthwhile history and perspective--especially for all government bureaocrats and policymakers
Profile Image for Gustav Osberg.
17 reviews17 followers
March 7, 2022
An excellent collection of case studies exploring how the state-desire for order and control often suppresses the embedded relations that enables societies and communities to function and live. The state is, by necessity, removed from the people it governs, and this is the core problem explored in the book.

Much like David Graeber illustrated the intimate relationship between the creation of money and the state, Scott’s studies illustrate a similar relationship between the state and the creation of science as a method and language. Quantification is here central, both for instrumental and discursive ends. This process seeks to convert a complex (social or natural) system into a set of variables that can ultimately be manipulated in the service of efficiency. This language is today embedded in our common sense, which, to me, represents a form of enclosure of not just the resources being governed, but the very language we use to structure our thinking and orient our social imagination.

The rise of statecraft is characterised by imposed and enforced standardisation (not uncommonly through forms of violence). One peculiar example of this is surnames. These used to be much more fluent and less important (which is hard to imagine today). With the advent of taxes, the authorities also needed some way to keep track of their subjects; surnames here came to serve that role. With this imposed standardisation, local complexity is uprooted in favour of integrating a uniform system.

This rationality is captured by what Scott terms ‘high modernism’. High modernism (much like neoliberalism, seemingly) is an order backed by the state lending its legitimacy from the assumption that there is a scientific solution to everything. It casts away old ways of organisation and practices to instead idolise an imagined great future. The present here merely serves as a platform from which ambitious schemes are launched.

In the book, the architect, planner, and visionary Le Corbusier serves as the embodiment of high modernism (although high modernism started in the 1800s, according to Scott), with Brasília taken as an example of a realised high modernist scheme. Built from scratch and according to the scheme, what in the end made the formal city function was the informal structures and arrangements organically appearing in and around the city by the ordinary people. Its failure (like the other cases outlined in the book) lies in the modernist schemes’ tendency to replace ‘deep’ (i.e. historically built and culturally grounded) complexity with simplified and quantified order.

In the last part of the book, Scott discusses the term Aristotelean term ‘Metis’, which is used to discuss a type of local knowledge that cannot be learnt by text, only by practice. Metis is highly bound to place and often refined through generations. Due to its hyper-local embeddedness, it cannot be universalised and thus not applied to contexts outside its origins. The book’s closing is a call to consider and respect the value of local knowledge.
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 11 books467 followers
May 21, 2017
This book is a fascinating look into the history of state-designed projects and their failures.

Scott’s thesis, as concisely as I can put it, is that state-designed plans often attempt to create highly legible spaces through planned simplifications. For a state, legibility is important because it makes governing and intervening in a population easier -- whether it be for tax collection or public health interventions. These plans often come in the form of modular, grid-like formation that can be monitored and directed from above. Unfortunately, these planned simplifications often come at the cost of complex natural and social ecologies that provide vast, but little-understood, benefits to their populations.

Scott looks at examples of these interventions that include urban planning, forestry, villagization, and collectivization.

The book is a critique of "high-modernism" that often qualifies its arguments when it comes to modernism. At the end, the book advocates for something might best be described as "little modernism" or modernism-lite.

For me, the thesis was articulated adequately within the first few chapters and became redundant in the many case studies. The case studies in themselves have value for specialists, but I would recommend reading Chapters 1, 9, and 10 and sampling the other case studies depending on your interests in urban planning, history, or environmental justice.

For those of you interested in similar books, I recommend: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Black Swan, Antifragile), Donna Haraway (writing on situated knowledge), Tania Murray (The Will to Improve), and pragmatist philosophy (Charles Pierce).

Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
June 11, 2016
I first read the more accessible and much shorter text from Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, and as one of my friends observed, that book makes the same basic point as Seeing like a State, though more conversationally. More pithily. (!). But I knew soon after I was into Anarchism that I would read this book. I wanted more. Scott is one of the few contemporary theorists who is actually a great writer. He crafts sentences, he’s compelling. He makes you care about the way ideas may impact the world. And Scott, Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, makes his case against mindless bureaucracy by drawing on fields as widely different as agriculture and urban planning. This book is by his own admission too long for its own good—which is to say it makes a great point, but will lose readers along the way for its sheer length--but you don’t have to read all of it to get the basic point.

The basic point is that top-down, standardized approaches to ANYTHING are destructive to the planet and to human needs. Scott is basically a kind of anarchist in principle, an anti-systems guy, who wants us to solve problems (usually) locally, from the ground up, together. He romanticizes nomads, serfs, gypsies for a kind of passive resistance to The State, but he also calls for folk knowledge and ad hoc approaches to the world. He hates administrative ordering, he hates high modernist (or neo-liberal) ideology that is shrilly optimistic and naïve about scientific progress. He illustrates the failure of great utopian social engineering schemes of the last 150 years. Urban planning of all kinds. Soviet collectivization. Tanzanian forced villagization. Disasters of epic proportion with dire and lasting human consequences. And it continues, this approach to problem-solving. Too much order on the basis of some academic theory is counter-productive, leads to chaos and destruction and unhappiness. Fixity leads to disaster.

Scott prefers metis, which is a kind of practical knowledge, drawing on social and natural diversity. Plastic, and divergent. Drawing on biodiversity, something now largely ignored by those trying to make big bucks shortsightedly, creating the sixth great species die-off. “The science of muddling through,” Scott likes, or what Jane Addams called “the doing of that which we don’t know how to do.” Figuring things out as you go, pragmatically. Think Local. Organic. Ecology of mind (Gregory Bateson). Interaction. Dialogue. Narrative instead of simplistic measurements. Films vs. snapshots. Language in all its fluidity and diversity as a model for growth, growth seen as fulfilling a range of human needs and not “progress” as rampant economic worldwide devastation. So nothing new, you say, but the proof is in the highly detailed examples of these problems.

The only problem with the book—besides the length--is that it focuses on illustrations of disaster as a way of developing principles for doing the opposite, as opposed to using stories of good things that have happened as a way of accomplishing the same thing. What's depressing is that there may be more stories to tell of widespread groupthink catastrophes than amazing human successes. Is this true? I am afraid it may be depressingly so, though I invite you to write your own hopeful tome in response to Scott.

My interest in science fiction and dystopian visions in comics and other novels is grounded in a kind of organic (and hopeful, progressive) vision that is grounded in ideals similar to Scott’s, which are familiar to me as a kind of sixties grounded activist, drawing as I have done on thinkers as diverse as Freire, Addams. Saul Allinsky’s radical pragmatism. Paul Feyerabends’s Against Methods. Orwell’s 1984. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That kind of thing. Hopeful stories for developing planet-saving principles for social action.

David Coleman, the President of the College Board and chief architect of the Common Core Standards sweeping the public schools, (something that Scott characterizes as just as disastrous as any standardized approach to anything), says, as a way of understanding why it is we all must do the same things at the same time:

“As you grow up in this world, you start to realize that people don’t give a shit about what you feel, or what you think.”

Coleman uses this “insight” to essentially claim that we must all do the same thing in schools. We must all learn K-college how to argue all the time. We have to read much more non-fiction and read far less literature. Stop writing poetry. We must standardize the curriculum rather than diversify it.

Coleman’s view is seeing like a state in its essence. But I, with Scott, think we have to start giving a shit about what ordinary people feel and think. Does it sometimes lead to Trump’s America? Maybe, sometimes. Local knowledge isn’t always perfect. You can’t romanticize it too much. But it is probably less likely to end in disaster than fascism. We must give a shit about what local communities with a thirst for economic and social justice might look like before it is too late.
Profile Image for Luke McCarthy.
31 reviews30 followers
May 23, 2020
As a work of academic theory this is mostly terrific. Scott does a great job articulating his central thesis, and the entire project is underpinned by a curiosity of mind that's readily apparent in the breadth of the books case-study work (I particularly loved his tangent regarding city planning). The argument at the centre of this is a relative simply one: human ecology is unfathomably complex, and the simplifications inherent in large-scale, utopian visions of statehood will inevitably wash away this complexity, generally causing a great deal of pain in the process. It's a call for political humility, I think, and is among the most well-argued and humane criticisms of the command economy I've read.

Sometimes Scott's anarchist tendencies (which I do in many ways find myself agreeing with!) can lead him to some rather bizarre, or a least seemingly contradictory stances. He continually articulates what is lost with regard to the state's blunt-force simplification of its population (a lot of these tangents are particularly insightful), but merely glosses over what can be gained from such large-scale methods of organisation. Public healthcare, housing and the redistribution of land and resources are merely footnotes to Scott's main points of state overreach (it can sometimes feel borderline comedic when, after an entire 20-30 pages extrapolating the pitfalls of this overreach, Scott then dedicates one page to the minor, barely worth mentioning benefit of universal healthcare). This is in some ways to be expected, as Scott's book is explicitly about the limits of statehood rather than it's potential benefits, but I think the work would certainly read stronger if he was more willing to explore these contradictions.

Ideas I'd like to expand on/research:
-How to reconcile Scott's convincing critique of the command economy with the inevitable failings of any kind of 'free market'.
-Whether the book's Chomsky-esque call for something resembling cautious, 'radical reform' is particularly relevant given current material conditions.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,454 reviews144 followers
February 21, 2020
‘Seeing like a State’ piles on example after example of where state intervention has proved disastrous from places as far apart as the Soviet Union and Tanzania, and yet while mirroring Hayek’s horror at Government large scale economic and social intervention, which is tightly conjoined with a total belief in market forces, Scott takes a more anarchistic stance looking more to local knowledge, involvement, and decision making. The book as a whole works well at battering supporters of large scale state intervention, but really goes no further than that. One might ask the question of whether we might be able to cite other interventions that have proved successful, or, at least, consider what might have been the consequences of non-intervention in certain cases. There are important questions to pose about State intervention, how it can restrict individual freedom of choice, but equally how it can lead to the eradication of killer diseases and even the promotion of transportation and communication systems that lead to better living standards. Having said all that, it’s a fascinating and important addition to the whole question of how we should organize our world.
Profile Image for John Ihor Campagna.
33 reviews6 followers
November 10, 2017
Good, but disappointing.

The message is clear, concise and initially highly thought provoking. The problem is Scott's repetitiveness as the same hypothesis and even the same examples sometimes are continually repeated or brought back in. By the end I had enough, and skimmed parts. Yes Professor Scott it's clear that human knowledge is limited, and we need to be careful about what we try to implement this is highly evident now. His's main examples are interesting, but in a way disappointing as his critique of the state seems more towards things that are basically obvious today pointing to the foibles of authoritarian regimes, and the grandiose dreams of the individuals behind them. Little to nothing is said about the contemporary liberal democratic capitalist states. Overall, his message just be boiled down to "be careful about your ambitions" which is important, but seems almost too simple and obvious. Someone like Hayek has already made this highly evident in the past, and Taleb today in a popular form has also re-hatched.
Profile Image for Marija.
20 reviews64 followers
June 11, 2019
This book is a great reference and it did intrigue me to learn more about Luxembourg's criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as well as to read Jane Jacobs's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities. " However, I didn't like Scott's writing style as much as I had expected. I wish he focused more on different perspectives rather than going into details jumping from one topic to another and repeating his conclusions through the book. Perhaps I should read it again.
Profile Image for Simon Parent.
228 reviews3 followers
March 30, 2022
Amazing overview of the rise of States and the mechanism that underpins it.

I am conflicted for the rating I should give this book.

It weaves a coherent thread throughout history, and concentrates itself on the rise of modern States. It admonishes srtuctures of control, categorisation, measurement, as a driving force that fragilize systems, which thrive on diversity and the unplanned chaos of life.

But, though the point is made beautifully, and with great wealth of examples, the solution is not expanded much. The recommendations to counter the High-Modernist outlook of control is to plan mostly for the short-term, to allow flexibility in design, to understand that the future bring unplanned changes to your design, to move in incremental steps.

... Ok, but in a world breaking at the seams, where drastic change is required everywhere, it's important to see that it's in the spirit of returning to a higher level of connections and natural diversity that we need to implement drastic changes to our monocultured, centralized world.

However, the Anarchist outlook of the author was very prevalent in his prescriptions and comments. I would have loved more specific prescriptions from him, as it seemed he simply disliked simplifying schemes that ignore nature's complexity, and though it points to small family farms, flexible city designs, there was little else to be implemented in the book, so it sounded more like he wants us to be aware of the hubris of planning...

But I do want the working class to plan production. As James C. Scott mentions, the Capitalist Market itself has a crushing logic that forces people to play within it, so if we are ever to transition to Socialism, I assume we'll need to plan lots of things. I take it then that it's important to plan incrementally, with lots of liberties, allowing the peculiarities of specific conditions to dictate the approach to take, and not focus on individual metrics at the expense of others.

As such, this book is still important to me, but it's easy to take it's message as a critique of technology and science itself, which are principles that absolutely need to be leveraged in the world I want. He keeps saying science brings good stuff, but also shows how it ignores the local knowledge of the multiple conditions and misses a ton of stuff in the process. That's understandable, so I hope the change we hope to bring will take this warning in consideration.

Profile Image for Jill.
793 reviews31 followers
April 29, 2012
There are times when you read a book and it's as if someone's opened a window to let the light in. I had one of those moments just 20 minutes or so after cracking open Scott's Seeing Like A State. In his book, Scott tries to unpack the various failures in high-modernist, authoritarian state planning, from the building of Brazil's new capital in Brasilia, Soviet collectivization and ujamaa villages in Tanzania. These case studies form the heart of the book and while interesting, were not what sparked the Aha! moment for me (hence the four stars, rather than five).

For me, that flash of illumination came when Scott articulated the state's need for legibility and simplification to facilitate its exercise of control and power. From the physical design of cities and the layout of road networks, to the creation of surnames and the standardization of language, Scott argues that all these are initiatives driven by the impulse to simplify and create legibility. Legibility may not necessarily lead to the most efficient or productive outcomes - industrial food production with its heavy dependence on fertilizers, antibiotics and attendant problems of pollution etc is a case in point. But seen from the context of legibility and simplification to enhance centralized control it makes perfect sense. A legible population makes it easier for the government to collect taxes, draft people for military service, etc. But Scott isn't making a blanket argument against governments, or against their quest for legibility and simplification. He acknowledges that this impulse can help bring about important outcomes, such as when used for vaccination drives.

I don't know if previously, on some level, I'd had a vague awareness of this impulse for simplification and legibility. But Scott's cogent analysis certainly put things in sharp perspective for me, made me think about policy initiatives from another angle and consider some of the underlying motivations/impulses that are not immediately apparent. And that's what I love about this book. It's given me a new lens through which to view the world.
Profile Image for Kars.
363 reviews42 followers
April 25, 2016
Five stars for the ideas, two stars for the prose, rounded up because this is just too an important book to not celebrate. Authoritarian high modernism, legibility, and metis—the concepts Scott introduces have hugely affected the way I see the world and have given me a vocabulary for talking about what I find so important about the institutions societies build and the dignity that is to be found in what I will call craft. It took me much longer to finish this beast than expected, but the final chapter on practical knowledge makes it all totally worth it. A deserved classic.
Profile Image for David.
666 reviews243 followers
April 26, 2012
Mistaken notions I previously held that this brainy tome corrected:

-- "Physiocrats" advocate government by massage therapy.

-- "Usufruct" is available in a fun variety of colorful flavors.

-- If someone tells you that something is "immanent", just hang around and wait for it to happen.

-- "Pari Passu" is what's for lunch at the ashram.

-- Upon reading (p. 19 of Kindle edition) that a particular type of tree was a “bread-and-butter tree”, it is appropriate to rush into the nearest park with a shaker of McCormick's finest cinnamon.

As you can see, the Kindle dictionary function got a workout on this one, as the cursor rushed around the screen to keep up with the avalanche of fancy words that only Yale professors can use without self-consciousness. This is my slightly lame way of saying that this book was made more inaccessible for the average reader by the use of obscure, foreign, or jargon words and phrases without explanation, often when perfectly adequate everyday English words were available.

That's too bad, because there were plenty of interesting ideas and research whizzing by, and the Yale-prof style obstructed their comprehension by those of us with merely adequate education.

This also book contains a handy four-step recipe (see other Goodreads reviews) for creating a fiasco on the scale of, for example, Stalin's collectivization of agriculture. This could be useful to have on hand if one is unexpectedly called upon to engage in fiasco-creation. While reading this book, I said to myself, “Self, conspicuous by their absence are step-by-step recipes for fiasco-remedy, or, even better, fiasco-prevention.” However, if you manage to maintain your sang-froid through repeated appearances in the text of “stochastic” and “episteme”, a general outline in fiasco-avoidance appears at the end.

This 1999 volume portrays mostly 20th-century, government-driven attempts at ordering society. Scott uses the word “legible” and grammatical variants to explain the motivation and subsequent activity of governments to more effectively order, map, census (is that a verb?), and tax the people living within their jurisdiction. Governments, Scott says, feel a compulsion to better “read” their populations, i.e., know roughly how many people, their professions, purchases, incomes, and such, so that they can (following verbs meant in both neutral and pejorative meanings) order, manipulate, and exploit them. It occurred to me that this process is currently happening on the Internet, led by the unholy (non-governmental) quartet of (in unholy alphabetic order) Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, who have been joined by a host of lesser satanic beings in this enterprise. This idea may already have been bouncing around the blogosphere for years for all I know, but I felt dangerously clever and original when it occurred to me all on my onesies. (Don't burst my balloon by leaving comments linking to ten-year-old articles of the same opinion.)

If you search (using Google, of course) using the book's name, plus the names of the unholy quartet, you will find some ventilation about how the u.q. ganged up to reduce/lessen the threat posed to the free flow of intellectual property which resulted from the late unlamented SOPA/PIPA laws. What you don't find, as far as I can tell, are any predictions of the possible consequences of the u.q. and friends getting into the legibility racket, fencing off parts of the Internet like an electronic collective farm, from which our needs will be so expertly anticipated that we will feel no need to leave.

So far, the stumbling baby steps of the u.q. in this area appear both comic and creepy, like when Gmail ads for Ralston Purina appear because someone has asked “Who let the cat out of the bag?” in an email. It seems that private companies have a relatively modest scope for fiasco-creation in this regard, limited to the bankrupting of their investors. (This event which would surely make my black heart sing, but I digress.) Perhaps I underestimate: what if any or all of the u.q. become too big to fail, or defy? Note to future graduate students: it's time to start researching “Seeing Like a Search Engine”.
Profile Image for Michael Nielsen.
Author 12 books1,070 followers
August 8, 2022
Superb, permanently changed the way I understand the world.

My takeaway - not quite Scott's story, but close:

+ bureaucracies and elites often think that they know better, that they can use technocratic means to make things much better for the population;
+ sometimes this works spectacularly well;
+ sometimes it obliterates local knowledge (metis) that is actually the basis for the functioning of a society
+ those technocrats - the High Modernists - want to measure (and impose) legible order on the governed. This may mean cadastral land maps; it may mean a census; it may mean universal time & weight measures; and so on.

It's not clear what to do in response. High Modernists gonna High Modern. I say this as someone who is, in many respects, a technocratic High Modernist. But what would be a healthier relationship between planners, visionaries, bureaucracts, elites, and the rest of humanity? Scott teaches us some humility about this question, without answering it.
Profile Image for Iel.
511 reviews12 followers
December 27, 2019
The best non-fiction creates a language/system of thought to explain something that everyone intuitively knew but couldn't quite flesh out. Love this set of ideas. Good social science (and any science) is thinking clearly.
Profile Image for Matthew Jordan.
71 reviews58 followers
March 7, 2021
5/5 for the book's thesis.
1/5 for the book's length.

Why is this allowed?? Why do thesis-driven books have to be so long??
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews203 followers
February 20, 2019
I've heard about this book for years and for some reason never felt much desire to read it despite many clear overlaps with my areas of interest. Even after I read his new book Against the Grain, which is a great synopsis of all the niche construction, domestication, and the cultural evolution of government stuff I've been interested in lately, and enjoyed the writing quite a bit, I didn't immediately jump back to this. But now that I've been diving into epistemology and the history of science again, it seemed like the right time.

I certainly understand why it's generated so much buzz. It's a tremendously fecund book that does a lot of things all at once, and mostly does them well, if not very thoroughly. The most obvious is that it's a very postmodernist book--a book Foucault might have written if he were capable of such clear and compelling writing. It's a critique of the way state power and scientific modernism intersect to hurt people: like Foucault's work, postmodern both as a reaction against modernism and as a broadly relativist commentary on epistemology at the same time. But it's also a plea against hubris fueled by scientific arrogance, linked to an anarchist sensibility and the kind of invocation of complexity that don't trip any alarms on the scholarly side but which most definitely resonate with a lot of the woo-type modern hippies I used to hang out with in the sustainable ag community. But then it's also a prospectus for two new fields in epistemology (though how new or unique they actually are I'm not entirely sure): perception theory from the perspective of institutions (as opposed to individuals or complete groups), and a cultural evolutionary study of knowledge focused on unspoken or even inarticulable practice.

The problem is that a lot of those ideas weren't clearly distinguished, and the connections between them are poorly organized. The suggestive fecundity is so overflowing and messy that it gets in its own way. The main thesis is that the world is complex, so making ambitious policy based on simple lab experiments is dangerous and unscientific, but states have an incentive to do it anyway because the very damage inflicted enables control and extraction. And that's a pretty interesting idea--how do the fiscal and political needs of states affect the trajectory of intellectual history and vice versa? But in practice, that gets truncated down to the most obvious element, repeated again and again and with a preponderance of evidence dumped on the parts that needed it least. Agricultural ecosystems, rural societies, and urban societies are all too complex to be safely mapped into the confines of restrictive plans. If you try, bad things will happen, as these extensive examples each show.

But then when it's time to talk about the interesting stuff, Scott just kind of asserts it without further exploration. Like, the idea that states choose to impose high-modernist plans instead of choosing more scientifically valid approaches to complexity because it benefits them is a big, bold thesis. It might even be quantitatively testable. I mean, it seems plausible, but it's less obvious than the parts Scott spent much more time demonstrating, so it's not like it just goes without saying. Is it a matter of administrative transaction costs? Simply about destroying the support networks that resist authoritarianism? Was it even successful? Is it still around, or did it get selected out? Why, if it was so good for states?

One of the biggest gaps here is the lack of a comparative perspective. Lots of states applied similar epistemologies on successful projects. Scott gestures at the ability of civil society to resist authoritarian schemes, but I would have liked to see him get into more detail on how that actually modified the epistemology. Was it a quiet subversion that enabled bad on-paper ideas to be viable, as resilient social structures weren't able to do in the worst cases he documents? Or was it a more explicit compromise that integrated other kinds of knowledge?

The best parts are those when Scott is drawing conclusions about epistemology in general, and I did clip a lot of quotes. He's a careful thinker and good writer, and he makes a lot of insightful points, both new and familiar, in compelling terms. The second to last chapter, an extended development of his idea of "metis," is particularly compelling and probably the jewel of the whole work. It leaves behind the narrow, judgmental scope of the case studies and makes the case that all types of overt knowledge can be viewed as tips of an iceberg of unspoken practical corollaries. Scott doesn't make the case in these terms, but what intrigued me about it is that it identifies a split between the products of culturally inherited systematic "cognitive gadgets" like science, which can only be transferred in terms of the systems of abstraction that created them, and the complete body of human knowledge, also culturally inherited but only as unconscious, unexplainable elements. The difference is that one kind of knowledge is overlain on the environment by design, and lives primarily in objective abstractions, while the other is fitted to the environment by cumulative selection. This might not perfectly match the distinction Scott has in mind (he emphasizes hands-on experience more than transmission and selection), but it's interestingly close.

It gets to the heart of the issue Scott has been dancing around the entire book. There's nothing wrong with oversimplifying a complex world to perceive useful patterns. Myopia is a crucial premise of every form of perception. And science isn't uniquely bad about indulging such oversimplifications. Quite the opposite. The fact that scientists expend so much effort imposing uniformity makes them ideally positioned to appreciate the complexity of the real world. Aside from the arrogance and authoritarianism, the epistemological problem with the failed schemes Scott describes is that they decoupled systematic cognitive gadgets from the legacy of practical knowledge that facilitated their engagement with the real world. And while he frames this as a kind of cautionary tale for policy-makers, it's equally revealing as an illustration of the way systematic knowledge actually works.

I'm rambling and some of this is just repeating the obvious thesis of the book but all of these ideas deserve a deeper dive than Scott gave them. The book has 18000 citations so presumably the papers I'm imagining are out there somewhere. . .
Profile Image for Mark Seemann.
Author 6 books436 followers
March 26, 2019
This is a book that can change how you understand and interpret the world. At least, I think it did this for me.

I discern at least two insights from my reading of it. One relates to the concept of legibility, the other to metis.

Communities in the old world (Europe before enlightenment, the third world before colonisation, etc.) would often be organised around local ways of doing things, established via oral tradition, and, while tradition-bound, also constantly adjusting to changes in the environment. Even measurements, such as of length or volume, would vary by region. Land ownership would often be complicated and unformalised.

This makes taxation and conscription difficult, and to the degree that it's even possible, a strictly local affair. This explains the feudal nature of medieval Europe. A king can only indirectly levy taxes by imposing taxation on his vassals. It's then up to the vassals to tax their subordinates, and so on. Seen from a central authority, this is both inefficient and lacks control.

For any central authority wishing to cut the middlemen, a more legible land is necessary. An absolute king needs to be able to directly count the number of able-bodied men available for conscription, and the amount of grain etc. produced each year, in order to be able to tax his subjects. This leads to land reforms and censuses. It also forces a degree of uniformity over a society that may not fit local conditions, but it does introduce a (partially illusory) degree of legibility of society.

This way of understanding the modern state is illuminating, and, in my opinion, transfers well to large corporations. Particularly those corporations steeped in Taylorism suffer the same blind spots as modern states. Quantification and uniformity may work if one produces timber or model A Fords, but causes much friction in modern knowledge-based organisations.

Here, Scott's concept of metis emphasises practical know-how. This describes a kind of (often tacit) knowledge that can only be gained by practice, often via apprenticeships. This type of knowledge is contrasted to epistemic knowledge, decoupled from practical, local concerns.

The idea of metis particularly rings true for me as a programmer. While there's a strong desire (particularly among management) to see software development as a legible, controllable process, the reality seems to me to better fit the concept of metis. A good programmer has, over many years, developed a set of heuristics that may or may not apply in a given situation. There seems to be few universal, Taylorist processes that make software development more predictable or controllable.

The analysis in the book is both compelling and enlightening. I definitely feel that it's going to change the way I think about certain things. I also, however, have problems with it.

First of all, I find it too long. It's possible that I missed a level of depth in it, but what I did get out of it, I could have gained in half the pages. The point about legibility was evident to me after, say, 150 pages, and the point about metis was made over a single 30-page chapter toward the end.

At times, the book veers off into territory that seems to me to be completely irrelevant, such as the advantages of polycropping and swidden agriculture over western monocropping. I get the point, and I don't even dispute it, but the book just goes on and on about this.

Another concern I have is with the text itself. It's always academic and dense, but while it's sometimes surprisingly easy to read, at other times it becomes 'illegible'. I found Part two quite readable, particularly the chapter on the high-modernist city, while the chapters on villagisation in Tanzania and on taming nature was far less readable.

Finally, the way the book's notes are organised is really annoying. Each chapter is equipped with about a hundred notes, and while many of them are references to literature, many others constitute additions and comments on the text itself. I'd have no problem with this if these were footnotes, but alas, they're end notes. This requires the reader to flip back and forth between the chapter and the end notes, often to find that the note was nothing but a literature reference. That's just not a good reading experience.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books207 followers
February 12, 2012
So, you're the state, and you've devised a brilliant modernization plan--people must choose last names (Mindanao), accept new standardized measurement (France's colonies), live on redivided farmland carefully surveyed to give each person equal sections (Stolypin's Russia), move to a beautiful new capital designed by Le Corbusier (Brasilia), or grow a single, new crop (collective villages, Tanzania), but the ungrateful wretches don't like it! Scott examines why, with the best intentions, planned and forced "high-modernist" concepts meet resistance and, when backed by coercion, can fail on a spectrum from protests to genocidal famine. It turns out that while peasants do sometimes do inefficient things because of lack of capital, or better tools, most of what they do is honed, location-specific expertise hard-won and transmitted over years of survival. If you provide BETTER ideas, they'll do them, but one-size-fits-everywhere imposition, they know will destroy what they already have. Scott uses compelling and vivid examples from global history, pointing out that no matter how beautiful the Grand Plaza, if it doesn't meet people's needs (actual people's needs, not what New Perfect Citizens OUGHT to want), they won't use it, they'll resent it, and you'll have big trouble.
Profile Image for zeyno.
112 reviews54 followers
September 1, 2014
james c. scott, devletin bizleri daha minnoş vatandaşlar -insanlar veya bireyler değil, vatandaşlar- haline getirmek için denediği sivil mühendislik projelerini dört ana bölümde incelemiş. kısacık bir girişi takiben; birinci, ikinci ve üçüncü bölüme gelişme, dördüncü bölüme ise sonuç diyebiliriz;

1.devletin okunaklılık ve basitleştirme projeleri
2.dönüştürücü vizyonlar
3.kırsal yerleşimin ve üretimin toplum mühendisliği
4.kayıp halka

ilk iki bölümü zevkle, kana kana, damarlarımda sıcacık anarşizm ile okudum. üçüncü bölümde ise kitabın bütünlüğünü üzdüğünü düşündüğüm, tarım konusundaki derinlemesine bilgi yüklemesi ile tıkandım.

kitabın neredeyse kendisi uzunluğunda bir de sonnotlar bölümü var. sonnotlar kısmındaki muhteşem kaynakçada referans gösterilen kitaplardan, türkçe'ye çevrilmiş olanları -arada kaçanlar olmuş olabilir- listeledim;

Tarih Boyunca Kent - Kökenleri, Geçirdiği Dönüşümler ve Geleceği/Lewis Mumford
Mısır'ın Sömürgeleştirilmesi/Timothy Mitchell
Hayali Cemaatler: Milliyetçiliğin Kökenleri ve Yayılması/Benedict Anderson
Postmodernliğin Durumu: Kültürel Değişimin Kökenleri/David Harvey
Modernite ve Holocaust/Zygmunt Bauman
Hapishanenin Doğuşu/Michel Foucault
Şansın Terbiye Edilişi/Ian Hacking
İnsanın Ölçüsü Olarak Makina: Batılı Hakimiyet İdeolojileri/Michael Adas
Gözün Vicdanı: Kentin Tasarımı ve Toplumsal Yaşam/Richard Sennett
Kaos/James Gleick
Sovyet Rusya Tarihi/Edward Hallett Carr
Uygarlık Süreci/Norbert Elias
Görme Biçimleri/John Berger
Büyük Dönüşüm: Çağımızın Sosyal ve Ekonomik Kökenleri/Karl Polanyi
Eylemde Anarşi/Colin Ward
Profile Image for Boy Blue.
462 reviews72 followers
July 19, 2022
Scott is an author who tends towards layers of verbiage, prolixity, pleonasm, circumlocution, and redundancy. He has the ability to turn a good phrase but he prefers to bog the reader down in a molasses of words and meaning.

The core of the book is explores:

"The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations."

That is to say the ideal goal of the modern state is to take the chaos of social life and bring administrative order to it. Or if we frame it in a more Terry Pratchett kind of way the central problem a nation state faces is to make its citizens and their activities visible and measurable, so it can then tax the ever loving bejeebus out of them.

The entire book is a work of distillation for the reader. Every sentence you have to do the work of an editor to find what is really being said. It's academese and while some will find it their mother tongue, I feel this book could have been significantly more influential if it was translated into lay speech.

If you sift through the sediment long enough you'll find the occasional dry quip and I'll confess to chuckling to myself a few times.

“After seizing state power, the victors have a powerful interest in moving the revolution out of the streets and into the museums and schoolbooks as quick as possible, lest the people decide to repeat the experience.”

or this zinger

“Telling a farmer only that he is leasing twenty acres of land is about as helpful as telling a scholar that he has bought six kilograms of books.”

The talk about metis was really good.

“The kind of knowledge required in such endeavours is not deductive knowledge from first principles but rather what Greeks of the classical period called métis, a concept to which we shall return. Usually translated, inadequately, as “cunning,” métis is better understood as the kind of knowledge that can be acquired only by long practice at similar but rarely identical tasks, which requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances.”

Basically metis is all the knowledge acquired through practical experience. The best anecdote of this was the story about a mango tree growing in compound Scott inhabited in Malaysia that was under attack by some red ants. No one knew how to protect the mangoes until an old man from the village started laying down palm leaves around the base of the tree. Turns out the palm leaves had a variety of black ant nesting in them. The black ants went to war with the red ants and ultimately defeated them. The best part is that the black ants don't like mangoes so crisis averted. This was métis in action.

The French are renowned worldwide for many things, one of them is some good old fashioned industrial action. Here Scott describes the process of one type of protest:

"When Parisian taxi drivers want to press a point on the municipal authorities about regulations or fees, they sometimes launch a work-to-rule strike. It consists merely in following meticulously all the regulations in the Code routier and thereby bringing traffic throughout central Paris to a grinding halt. The drivers thus take tactical advantage of the fact that the circulation of traffic is possible only because drivers have mastered a set of practices that have evolved outside, and often in contravention, of the formal rules."

“In a work-to rule action (the French call it grève du zèle), employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace. The workers achieve the practical effect of a walkout while remaining on the job and following their instructions to the letter. Their action also illustrates pointedly how actual work processes depend more heavily on informal understandings and improvisations than upon formal work rules. In the long work-to-rule action against Caterpillar, the large equipment manufacturer, for example, workers reverted to following the inefficient procedures specified by the engineers, knowing they would cost the company valuable time and quality, rather than continuing the more expeditious practices they had long ago devised on the job. They were relying on the tested assumption that working strictly by the book is necessarily less productive than working with initiative.”

Gems are scattered through the text, you just have to be ever vigilant to find them:

“For nearly three hundred years, the Spanish calendar for the Philippines had been one day ahead of the Spanish calendar, because Magellan’s expedition had not, of course, adjusted for their westward travel halfway around the globe.”

“Universal last names are a fairly recent historical phenomenon. Tracking property ownership and inheritance, collecting taxes, maintaining court records, performing police work, conscripting soldiers, and controlling epidemics were all made immeasurably easier by the clarity of full names and, increasingly, fixed addresses.”

“As the biologist J. B. S. Haldane metaphorically described the advantages of smallness: “You can drop a mouse down a thousand yard mineshaft; and on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man broken, a horse splashes.”

"The pinte in eighteenth-century Paris, for example, was equivalent to .93 litres, whereas in Seine-en-Montagne it was 1.99 litres and in Precy-sous-Thil, an astounding 3.33 litres. The aune, a measure of length used for cloth, varied depending on the material (the unit for silk, for instance, was smaller than that for linen), and across France there were at least seventeen different aunes."

There's just dozens and dozens of these pockets of wisdom but you've got to do some serious fracking of the text to get them out.

A fascinating thesis. Unfortunately, I had more interest in the underlying concept of how a state sees and manages their citizens than its specific application in Soviet Russia and Tanzania.
Profile Image for Buzz Andersen.
26 reviews110 followers
November 21, 2018
I absolutely loved this book. It’s definitely academic, and the extensive case studies can be a lot to get through, but in my opinion the effort is always rewarded with profound insight. I would say this book comes as close as anything I’ve come across to articulating my personal outlook on politics and history.
665 reviews14 followers
May 11, 2014
"Seeing Like a State" is about that most modern of phenomena -- indeed, Scott refers to it as "high modernism" -- rule by expert. Divine right having largely been discarded as a justification for authoritarian rule, science is now pressed into service instead: the ruler's decisions cannot be questioned because they are not political or debatable, being the product of the expert's neutral, technical knowledge. "Seeing Like a State" is essentially a refutation of this assertion: Scott instead demonstrates that not only is supposedly neutral and technical knowledge often ideologically weighted, in many cases it lacks universal applicability. While the scientifically-trained expert can provide help and advice, he cannot dictate to those in the field (in "Seeing Like a State", which focuses largely on agriculture, often literally so), because his training, while useful, does not allow him to solve the problems they face. Indeed, Scott's claim is that there is no training for the solution of many real-world problems other than the process of trying to solve said problems.

Scott is not, of course, the first to tackle the ideological underpinnings of what is often presented as entirely ideology-free knowledge. David Noble's "America by Design" examined the way that the needs of some of America's largest corporations determined the growth of the engineering profession in the early 20th century (including university presidents quoted as describing the job of engineering training as being to produce the right type of human raw material for factory use). John Ralston Saul's "Voltaire's Bastards" similarly challenged the neutrality of the modern administrative-bureaucratic elites usually referred to as technocrats. Scott's main example of seemingly neutral but actually ideological expertise is the field of scientific agriculture, which he examines together with case studies of forced collectivization in the USSR and the ujaama villages in Tanzania. In all three books, the key is to understand the assumptions that go into generating knowledge. After all, one cannot make logical deductions from nowhere: some axioms are needed to start with. In relatively abstract sciences like mathematics or physics, where the goal is to generate basic knowledge, the necessary axioms are parsimonious and widely-agreed upon (though mathematicians can still spend time disputing the relative merits of, say, the axiom of choice vs. Zorn's lemma); in more concrete fields like engineering or economics, such is not necessarily the case; and when the goal moves from simply increasing knowledge to causing real-world effects, things can get very dicey indeed. For scientific agriculture, of course, real-world effects are very much the goal: the direction of research is determined by which effect is desired, and the underlying assumptions that determine the relative desirability of effects. For the most part, the most desired effect of scientific agriculture is a maximal yield of a single species (usually a grain) in a single field in a single season. Short-term yield maximization is certainly one possible measure of agricultural success, but one could easily imagine others. Maximization of nutrition, for instance, or taste. Or one could prefer to maximize the quality of the soil over a much longer time-frame. Or one might be more worried about minimizing the year-to-year variation in harvests. Furthermore, the focus on the yield of grain is somewhat misleading, especially for small farmers in developing countries, who may be counting on their crop to also provide building material, fodder for livestock, raw material for crafts, compost for subsequent crops, etc., etc. So why did the short-term yield of a monoculture grain field become the centerpiece of scientific agriculture? To a significant extent because it was what large American agricultural companies were most concerned with.

But for Scott, the ideological freight of modern scientific agriculture goes beyond its utility to large agriculture corporations. Its recommendations -- invariably for large, heavily mechanized farms, with identical crop strains and the profuse application of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides to overcome non-uniformity of soil or location -- fundamentally reflect not just a desire to boost profits, but rather a strong belief in the necessity of the centralization and control of the farming process. In the U.S., this centralization and control was accomplished via large agribusiness corporations, but the central ideological goal of transferring control of agriculture from small farmers to centralized bureaucracies transcended what we usually think of as ideological systems. Polices that made it possible for a centralized corporate bureaucracy to control the countryside for the purpose of extracting profits were just as useful for centralized state bureaucracies that wished to control the countryside to extract taxes or bolster their power. This is most vividly demonstrated by examining forced collectivization in the USSR and forced (though to be fair, vastly less force was used) villagization in Tanzania under Nyerere. Both involved taking populations that were largely outside of state control and moving them into it. Following the Russian Revolution, Russian peasants had carried out their own program of land reform, without Bolshevik help, and hence much of the countryside consisted of semi-autonomous villages where the state had little idea of how much was being produced, much less the power to tax that production. Much of the motivation of collectivization, then, stemmed from Stalin's desire gain control over the countryside -- both to enhance state power and make it possible to more effectively tax agricultural production -- by moving the people from villages where the state had no idea what was going on to collectives controlled by the state. Similarly, the scattered and semi-nomadic Tanzanian peasant population was difficult for the Tanzanian state to reach: though Nyerere hoped to reach the people with clinics and schools as well as police and taxes, the underlying impetus towards control was much the same. Stalin and Nyerere both justified their polices by appeals to socialism, of course, but in this case "socialism" meant the adoption of modern, large-scale, mechanized farming methods that would be far more productive than primitive peasants with their small plots and backwards, unscientific methods: which is to say, scientific agriculture. As such, both Nyerere's and Stalin's policies were embraced by decidedly non-socialist Western experts. American agricultural experts were envious of vast collectivized Soviet farms that were being designed and run by technical specialists on the basis of the most up-to-date principles, and wished that agriculture in the U.S. could be reconstructed in the same scientific fashion. Similarly, there was a striking continuity between Nyerere's ujaama villages and previous attempts by the British colonial government to concentrate the population, and Nyerere's plans were met with favor in Western capitalist bastions like the World Bank. All entities, on both sides of the ideological split, believed that the central control of agricultural production by technical experts was essential.

And this kind of agreement across ideological lines was not limited to scientific agriculture. Taylorist principles of scientific management, which attempted to reduce factory work to a series of well-defined motions which the worker would perform without any idea of why he was doing them -- only the manager would need to see the big picture, and hence he would have full control -- were enthusiastically embraced by capitalists, Communists, and fascists alike. Differences over who would be in control of the process paled in comparison to the agreement that the process must be controlled by a managerial elite. Scott takes another example from modernist urban theory by comparing Brasilia, designed by the Communist architect Oscar Niedermayer, and Chhattisgarh, designed by the anti-Communist architect Le Corbusier. Again, despite the fact that the two architects are poles apart ideologically, their cities are designed along very similar lines. Both emphasize a geometrical order, one that is only visible from a birds-eye view. Both favor entirely single-purpose neighborhoods: only residences, only shopping, only offices, etc. Both make use of roads that are only useful for getting from point A to point B by car. Both contain lots of empty space, but generally in large, sterile quantities, and far from where people actually live: smaller street-corner spaces where people might congregate informally are absent. In short, both cities provide no space for their inhabitants to do anything other than what the state wants them to do: they can work, they can sleep, they can shop, but they can't, say, get together and discuss politics. And should they go further and try to get together and set up barricades, they would be fatally hampered by a city of wide streets designed to make it easy for security forces to get anywhere. From an ideological standpoint, the fundamental hallmark of both cities is control.

Of course, much of this not entirely new. Both Brasilia and Chhattisgarh are clearly influenced to a certain extent by Baron Haussman's redesign of Paris in the 1850's, when, with the backing of Napoleon III, he cleared slums and replaced dirty warrens of narrow, winding, and easily barricaded streets with long, elegant, straight avenues, radiating with geometrical perfection, that also happened to provide easy access for troops in case of disturbances. And the state's goal of increasing centralization and control is hardly a new one: to take just one prominent example, if you have a last name, it's almost certainly because sometime in the last millennium or so the government gave an ancestor of yours one in order to make it easier to keep track of him. If your ancestor was Richard, known as Johnson because his father's name was John, he was written down as Richard Johnson, and his children were all given the last name Johnson as well, even though their father's name was, of course, Richard. The process is perhaps most visible in the Philippines, where the Spanish assigned surnames by decree in 1849: entire towns ended up with surnames that all began with same letter. But Scott's argument is that this push for control has been vastly strengthened by high modernism. By asserting that policies of centralization are scientifically determined, high modernism provides an ideological underpinning that can, in the right situations (ones where, usually due to revolution or de-colonization, the government acquires a tremendous amount of power), lead to criminal and tragic episodes like forced collectivization.

And what makes it even worse is that usually the attempt to assert centralized control over complex processes is doomed: even if carried out with the utmost concern for the people involved, and with the only motive being an improvement in the efficiency of whatever process is involved, failure is still almost certainly inevitable due to the natural limits of expert knowledge when faced with problems involving vast numbers of variables with little-understood correlations. The general approach of scientific studies is to vary a single variable while holding all others fixed: this is a powerful approach, but in many real-world situations it's difficult-to-impossible to accomplish. In order to come up with meaningful results, then, a number of simplifying assumptions are often made. However, despite what you may have heard from Milton Friedman, the ability of a theory to match the available data is not the only test of it's applicability: assumptions do matter (after all, it took years before the Copernican theory was able to out-perform the Ptolemaic one and its carefully calibrated system of epicycles). In the field, where the assumptions may not hold and careful control of the many variables is not possible, the experimentally derived results may well be of limited utility. Returning to agriculture, many of the seemingly antiquated and unscientific methods of small farmers in the developing world -- such as polycropping (growing multiple crops in a single field) or shifting cultivation -- have proved to be far more productive in the medium-to-long-term, not to mention more ecologically sound, than those suggested by Western agricultural experts. Which is not to say that science has nothing useful to say about agriculture, but instead that a certain amount of humility is probably important: the knowledge of farmers who have spent years (and whose ancestors also spent years) cultivating in a particular region is often quite useful, even if that knowledge doesn't count as science. (One thing that Scott does not address, probably because the books was published in 1998, is the impact of the ever-growing amounts of computing power scientists have at their command. But of course in this case the problem would be approached not by finding an analytical solution -- even such a simple problem as the three-body problem does not admit of an analytical solution -- but by producing increasingly detailed simulations. In other words, rather than spending years learning about the features of a problem by hand-on efforts at solution, the scientists would have the computer attempt to solve it a few million times and look at the results.)

And that is, in the end, the crux of Scott's argument: local knowledge (the term he uses is "metis", which was what Homer said that Ulysses had lots of), derived from a process of trial-and-error rather than scientific experimentation, and usually not amenable to being codified as a set of rules or a procedure to be followed, can still be useful and is often essential. It can be displaced by science, of course: much medical folk wisdom has bitten the dust in the last century or two, superseded by modern scientific medicine. Which doesn't necessarily mean that the folk wisdom was wrong: variolation (in which smallpox matter from mild cases of smallpox contracted in previous years was used to induce a (usually) mild case of smallpox in the patient) worked, it's just that vaccination works much better, and the principle behind it can be much more broadly applied. But it remains the case that the kind of local and unsystematic knowledge acquired through long practice is essential for many activities. For instance, it is this we can thank for the existence of the "work-to-rule" strike, in which rather than simply not working, the workers instead work by strictly following the rules laid down by managment, something which usually brings the process to a grinding halt. In most cases, a procedure cannot account for all the variables that can affect a give process, and control over all the variables is either impossible or ruinously expensive: becoming an expert involves developing rules of thumb that allow you to determine when a significant change in variables has occurred and modify the procedure accordingly. This, for Scott, is precisely why supposedly scientific plans drawn up by centralized bureaucracies (of whatever nature) are bound to fail: they don't take into account the metis of the actual workers on the ground. What is needed, rather than "imperial knowledge", are institutions that are decentralized, flexible, and diverse, that can use both science and metis when appropriate.
Profile Image for Nathan Albright.
4,487 reviews110 followers
September 10, 2023
Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed, by James. C. Scott

If you are familiar with the author's work at all as I am or have read or engaged in anything that resembles anarchist thinking, then one can know that seeing like a state is not meant here as a compliment. Those who have a healthy skepticism or even cynicism about the possibility that contemporary governments have in changing the human condition will see in this book the sort of confirmation they would wish that even well-meaning attempts to control reality by governments generally fail in a spectacular way, and that states succeed when they are at their most modest, or when their efforts are frustrated by realists among them who are able to overcome the immense simplifications that result from statist thinking. This book explores the failures of a state in fields as diverse as scientific forestry, city design, and collective agriculture. Generally speaking, the author also identifies some of the major blind spots that get in the way of states and that may therefore inform readers as to how one may best improve the human condition through gradual means, modest ends, and a high degree of respect for the autonomy and local knowledge of the people that one wishes to help. These conditions, alas, are often far too little in evidence among utopian schemers of the type that the author discusses in this book.

This particular book is a bit more than 350 pages and it is divided into four parts and ten chapters. The book begins with acknowledgements and an introduction and then discusses state projects of legibility and simplification (I), both with regards to nature and space (1) as well as cities, people, and languages (2). This is followed by a discussion of states' transforming visions (II), with chapters on authoritarian high modernism (3), the high-modernist city (like Brasilia) and a critique of its failings (4), and the revolutionary party and a diagnosis of its problems (5). This is followed by a look at schemes of social engineering of rural settlement and production (III), with chapters on soviet collectivization (6), forced villagization in Tanzania (7), and failed efforts to tame nature (8). The last part of the book shows the author talking about the missing link (IV) of practical wisdom, or Metis (9) before the author concludes (10). After this there are notes, sources for illustrations, and an index.

While in general the record of states is not particularly good when it comes to running anything, there are a couple of tendencies that the author notes as being especially dangerous to the well-being of those under a state's rule. One of these, the state's desire for legibility and simplicity, is a more general failing. States tend to be in favor of solutions that offer easy requisition and organization and this simplicity frequently destroys what is worthwhile in human, animal, and plant life by making it susceptible to disease and only focusing on narrow goals and neglecting the benefits that come from the deceptively orderly behavior of people, animals, and plants in their native environments, including emergent and vibrant cities, it should be stated. The thin simplifications that states tend to make in their planning effort do not serve their efforts of improvement well, for they are things that look good in miniature or on plans but fail in practice because they lack practical knowledge and the wisdom that can be applied to one's circumstances as one finds them. The second problem is more specific to totalitarian states, and that is authoritarian high-modernism, with its power and ambitions to remake human nature as well as the world in the image of the ruler or the technocratic elite or the revolutionary party, with all of the horrors that brings to humanity. This book is certainly not light-hearted reading, but anything that encourages caution and modesty in one's goals in using power is probably for the best.
Profile Image for Alexander Boyd.
28 reviews50 followers
March 7, 2021
Utopian, philosophical, scientific. These three words, when backed by an authoritarian state, are humanities worst nightmare according to Scott, and I agree. Just a lovely book that brings you inside the state's "eye" (singular, as the states covered in the book often act under the direction of an unrivaled authoritarian ruler), in a manner I had not quite realized before.

I first encountered the term high-modernism when interviewing Kristen Looney about "village mergers 合村并居," whereby "natural villages" were razed and villagers relocated into centrally located apartment blocks, in Shandong province this past summer. Professor Looney mentioned that Chinese authorities, motivated by a high-modernist vision of an orderly and legible countryside, preferred housing blocks and consolidated fields (which in theory can lead to mechanized, i.e. rational agriculture) over the messy, "impenetrable" (but to whom?), layout of the natural countryside. I could barely follow what she was saying, so I left the topic.

Now, thanks to Scott, I'm back.

In the interest of time, I'm going to keep it really short, and discuss the "poverty alleviation resettlement 易地扶贫搬迁" policy in Guizhou province as a potential bookend to the past century's history of high-modernist disaster.

The program is simple, villagers living in "inaccessible" (again, to whom?) settlements are moved into housing apartment blocks near transportation arteries. Their land in the village, where possible is consolidated into mass agriculture, environmental protection sites, or left fallow. In the new settlement, local cadres in concert with business interests are responsible for establishing light industry cooperatives that are intended to employ the majority of residents, thereby enticing rural migrants who move seasonally between Guizhou and Guangzhou (for example) in rhyme with planting and harvest cycles on one end and holiday production rushes on the other, to stay in place.

Much of this is entirely voluntary on the part of villagers, many of whom are happy to abandon their rural homes in favor of the comforts of township living (Lenin's focus on electricity returns!). Some, as one might be able to imagine, are not. But why does the state feel the need to do this massive transformation of rural society (over 10 million people have been moved)? I think Scott's argument about the importance of control over efficiency is extremely salient. I have serious doubts about the economic efficacy of turning 50 year old farmers into light industry craftsmen. But one thing is clear, the newly restructured villages are fully penetrable by the state. The imposition of grid management (网格化管理) , impossible in the countryside (as we saw in the Hebei coronavirus outbreak in April) is best fit for the new semi-urban apartment blocks. Farmers living in the countryside, speaking literal dialects, are foreign to the cadres imported from Zhejiang tasked with alleviating their poverty. (obviously desire to integrate the remaining pockets of subsistence farming into the market economy plays a role here too, not just power.) But what happens when the cooperatives fall to the Manichean laws of markets or the exhaustion of a spent state (or spent cadre class)? I further wonder about the Metis of the Cadres. Is China training a group of highly knowledgeable, responsive, tough managers destined to guide its future development? Or is Xi's personal obsession with strengthening oneself driving cadres to a place where they have no use, no desire to be, and nobody to discipline them for their failures? Only time will tell and I hope to be there when it does.

This has become a long slog on issues outside of the book's purvey. But these are the sort of questions the book gets one to thinking about. 10/10, would give it 5 stars if I could.

Another must read.

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