Seeing Like a State
Book: James Scott. Seeing Like a State. Yale University Press, 1999
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"In “Seeing Like a State“, James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.”
Excerpt from a longer review by J. Bradford DeLong:
"On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. Heaven knows that I am no Austrian--I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat--but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.
This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as "Austrian ideas" into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well.
No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.
But on a second level, it is an act of displacement. Friedrich Hayek, after all, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for making many of Scott's key arguments: that the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility). These key arguments are well known: they are the core of the Austrian economists' critique of central planning." (http://econ161.berkeley.edu/Econ_Articles/Reviews/Seeing_Like_a_State.html)
On the Concept of Legibility
"Central to Scott’s thesis is the idea of legibility. He explains how he stumbled across the idea while researching efforts by nation states to settle or “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives:
The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The pre-modern state was, in many crucial respects, particularly blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people.
The book is about the 2-3 century long process by which modern states reorganized the societies they governed, to make them more legible to the apparatus of governance. The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs (and indeed, is part of, rather than “above”). It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic. The attempt to maximize returns need not arise from the grasping greed of a predatory state. In fact, the dynamic is most often driven by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the people, on the part of governments with a popular, left-of-center mandate. Hence the subtitle (don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a simplistic anti-big-government conservative/libertarian view though; this failure mode is ideology-neutral, since it arises from a flawed pattern of reasoning rather than values).
The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes — better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture — were inevitable.
The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant. The book is full of thought-provoking pictures like this: farmland neatly divided up into squares versus farmland that is confusing to the eye, but conforms to the constraints of local topography, soil quality, and hydrological patterns; rational and unlivable grid-cities like Brasilia, versus chaotic and alive cities like Sao Paolo.
High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead to simplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.” The deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible. Or at least more legible to the all-seeing statist eye in the sky (many of the pictures in the book are literally aerial views) than to the local, embedded, eye on the ground.
Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.
This imposed simplification, in service of legibility to the state’s eye, makes the rich reality brittle, and failure follows. The imagined improvements are not realized. The metaphors of killing the golden goose, and the Procrustean bed come to mind." (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/)
2. Kevin Carson:
- see section 1 of: http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/James-Scott.pdf
James C. Scott:
Legibility refers to
"a state's attempt to make society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to “translate” what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.
How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored....
How were the agents of the state to begin measuring and codifying, throughout each region of an entire kingdom, its population, their landholdings, their harvests, their wealth, the volume of commerce, and so on?
Each undertaking... exemplified a pattern of relations between local knowledge and practices on one hand and state administrative routines on the other.... In each case, local practices of measurement and landholding were “illegible” to the state in their raw form. They exhibited a diversity and intricacy that reflected a great variety of purely local, not state, interests. That is to say, they could not be assimilated into an administrative grid without being either transformed or reduced to a convenient, if partly fictional, shorthand. The logic behind the required shorthand was provided... by the pressing material requirements of rulers: fiscal receipts, military manpower, and state security. In turn, this shorthand functioned... as not just a description, however inadequate. Backed by state power through records, courts, and ultimately coercion, these state fictions transformed the reality they presumed to observe, although never so thoroughly as to precisely fit the grid."
"I aim [in Seeing Like a State] to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.
I shall argue that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster.
The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society—the transformative state simplifications described above [which Scott calls “state maps of legibility,” according to which state “officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.”] .... By themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft; they are as vital to the maintenance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would-be modern despot....
The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.Only when these two elements are joined to a third does the combination become potentially lethal.
The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing to use the fully weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist ideas into being.
A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build."
Similar books, recommended by Anthony McCann:
- Derek Gregory, the Geographical Imagination, and also Ideology, Science and Human Geography.
- Nicholas Blomley: Law, Space and Geographies of Power (and more recent work).
- Timothy Mitchell: Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity University of California Press, 2002.
Colonising Egypt, University of California Press, 1991