Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott

April 10, 2006, [MD]

Note, this post is based on a book review I wrote for school. It’s a very good book, and I wanted to share some of the main topics. I cut down about 40%, especially my own analyses (which were tenous at best). This is my first attempt at posting something not written originally for the blog, we’ll see how it works out.

What does an Indian state capital, Waldsterben in Germany and the introduction of monocropping in Tanzania have in common? According to James C. Scott’s book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” (1999) these cases are all examples of “high modernism” gone awry. They also illustrate the breadth of examples and cases that Scott attempts to, and mostly succeeds in, tying together into a central and convincing narrative. He began his enquiry into the workings of the modern state through asking himself why migratory people were seen to be such threats to all states, often coerced into becoming sedentary - and he ends up with the idea of a state that is trying to read society, but in trying to impose legibility, changes the very fundament of social and physical organization.\

In accordance with the title, Scott (1999) wants to examine the grand failed schemes of development, and he does this through the conceptual lens of what he terms “high modernism”. This over-confidence in science and technology and the belief in a rational design of the social order was almost omnipresent in heydays of industrialization and well into our days — “It would have been hard not to have been a modernist of some stripe at the end of the nineteenth century in the West” (p. 4; 90) — but it became especially dangerous when coupled with an authoritarian state willing to use coercive power, a nation weakened by colonial rule, war, depression or national liberation struggle, and a weak civil society (p. 2-4).

But the grand schemes of development must be seen in the context of several hundred years of states struggling to make nature and society “legible”. Scott describes states that, a few hundred years ago, knew very little about their subjects, and the natural systems in the Kingdom. They used very heavy-handed techniques to extract what they needed for warfare and upkeep, and otherwise interfered minimally in local communities that they knew little about (p. 24). Scott uses the example of Bruges in the 15th Century as a city whose streets and houses were the result of millions of micro-interactions throughout history. Although their internal logic was obvious to the locals, an outsider would need a local guide to get around; not only would the streets be confusing, but the local dialect would be incomprehensible, the measures and even the “time zone” would be different for each locale (p. 56-65). And with no birth register, and no fixed last names, nor property registers to sort out the “chaos” (from the state’s point of view) of common land, shared land, leases and smallholdings, the state did not reach very far (ibid.).

The phenomenon that Scott describes, and that places cadastral mapping (who owns what land), language unification and utopian plans for city reform into the same conceptual category, is that in the process of attempting to “read” nature and society, the state ended up imposing a “simplification” of the structure, to make them more “legible” (p. 3; 15). Scott traces this back to the creation of scientific forest management in Germany, turning rich but difficult to manage ecosystems into regimented rows of Norway spruce was a way of making the forest “legible”, just as fixed patronyms and cadastral mapping were essential for taxation (p. 33; 70). The unification of language, and the city with wide streets and same-sized blocks enabled the expansion of the state’s synoptic vision, and the development of a more finely tuned, efficient and intrusive state (p. 81). This went hand in hand with the idea that a central purpose of the state was the improvement of all members of society, including health and education (p. 91).

Perhaps it was only natural that the extension of the “cameral science”, managing the wealth of the nation, would be the scientific management of men and women. Taylorism, the scientific management of labor, was equally attractive to the Soviet Union as it was to the capitalist West, both of whom liked to think of “masses of people” rather than societies of individuals (p. 140; 160-165). Not only does he highlight how workers are considered only as productive forces (like nature suddenly became natural resources, and plants were separated into weeds and crops), but he also underlines the process of turning skilled and autonomous smallholders and artisans into nameless, replaceable worker bees (p. 13; 176).

There are two related trends that run through both the utopian projected and actually built cities by amongst others Le Corbusier, and the grandiose agricultural reforms and villagization projects that Scott (1999) goes on to discuss. The first is a sense of aesthetics, and the idea, contested by Jane Jacobs, that if it looks organized, then it is organized (p. 104; 107). Thus, a road is seen, in Le Corbusier’s imaginary cities, as merely a tool to transport people from A to B, without recognizing with Jane Jacobs, that some might be traveling merely to enjoy the sights, some are taking a walk to their friends while doing some shopping at the same time (Scott 1999, p. 133). Jane Jacobs similarly criticized the “view from afar” of aesthetic modernists, and examined how people in the cities function.

Thus Brasilia and Chandigarh where both constructed with wide-open spaces, identical looking houses and with uses separated into different sectors of the city (p. 120). These cities undoubtedly looked very organized, compared to the hodgepodge of new and old buildings, mixed uses and labyrinthine roads “jarring” older cities in both countries. Similarly, the mono-crop planted fields in Tanzania were more appealing, and more clearly the result of hard work, then the polycrop fields that looked almost untouched (p. 282). Of course, to the insider the “system” in the old way was obvious, and much more sophisticated than from-scratch planning could ever create, but high modernism saw everything from the outside. Whether it was Le Corbusier drawing cities that would look hideous from everywhere, except from a helicopter looking down, or agricultural extension experts performing experiments with single crops under controlled conditions, that had no relation to the daily life of farmer, they all served to devalue and remove local knowledge, and impose an external perspective as the only valid (104; 262).

Of course, most of these schemes ultimately failed, and Scott believes their epistemology was the biggest problem. Modeling and generalizing can be useful conceptual tools, but if you begin to believe that the map is the terrain, you will have problems. Both ecological systems and social relations are infinitely more complex than what can be modeled, and in this case the planners often did not even try, or want, to understand local conditions. Scott calls the kind of knowledge which was devalued by the modernists, and in some instances totally destroyed, metis, the practical and implicit knowledge that comes with doing something — that is highly spatially and temporally delineated. It works right here, right now. It is highly local, and not explicit; not easily written down or “proven” according to positivistic science, thus does not “exist” within the modernist worldview. The processes of high modernism, whether it be factory industrialization, creating of huge factory farming in the US and Soviet, mass relocation of farmers in Tanzania or the introduction of mono-crop farming, all serves to create the “docile minds” of people once autonomous, now dependent on experts’ advice.


Stian Håklev April 10, 2006 Toronto, Canada
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