This time we'll be taking a quick look at James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.
My purpose in reviewing Seeing Like a State is to draw attention to some concepts which I had never really thought about before reading this book. Awareness of these concepts has helped clarify my thinking since then. Or so it seems to me. As with my last post, I hope this may be helpful to my fellow Canadians. I certainly don't intend to speak down to my countrymen—they lean in a direction of which I heartily approve. But when it comes to evaluating the worth (or worthlessness) of states, a different approach is required here, where we are proudly carrying on with our experiment in progressive social democracy, than when talking to people from south of the border, whose newly elected leadership seems eager to dismantle much of their government.
I read this book a couple of years ago and there wasn't really time in the schedule I'd set myself currently to give it a thorough re-reading. So I went looking on the internet and found several detailed reviews and a youtube video of the author discussing the book.
As Scott says in the video, the essence of the thing is in the first 15 pages, the rest of it is just examples to prove the point.
Scott published this book in 1998, after he'd done his initial work on hill societies in Southeast Asia. He had noticed, and was trying to understand why:
...the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around"... In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill people on the one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarizations) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.
The more I examined those 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 project of statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it know 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.
In order for a state to succeed in its projects, it needs control and to effectively exercise control it needs intelligence—information about its land and its people.
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 (tax) 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.
This project of making society legible has been going on for centuries and where I live it is pretty much complete. But my wife and I both grew up on farms that didn't have street numbers. You can bet there were lot numbers for tax purposes, but nobody bothered with them for addresses. We knew where we lived and so did our neighbours—it just wasn't a problem for any of the locals, and mail came to "general delivery" at the local post office. It was only in the process setting up the 911 emergency call system, in the 1990s, that every house and farm in Bruce County was finally given a number. In rural areas, those numbers are now proudly displayed at the end of our driveways, so the police, fire and ambulance drivers can find us when we need them.
There was a time (and it's still the case in the third world) when even cities didn't have maps, street names were very informal and houses didn't have numbers on them. Only the people who lived in a neighbourhood could reliably find their way around it. Very inconvenient for strangers, but awfully handy for a local trying not to be found...
The concept of legibility is the first new idea I encountered in this book. We in the modern world are immersed in legibility and, in most cases, hardly aware of it. Even some politicians—governing ones—seem to be unaware of it. Steven Harper (a former Canadian Prime Minister) comes to mind, doing away with our "long form" census, because he didn't want to collect (and be confused by) facts that didn't fit his ideology.
Anyway, the government knows where we live, how much we make in a year, our phone number, the license number, make and colour of the car we drive, and so forth. Most of us accept this very meekly. It enables government to deliver the services we count on and to some it seems that legibility is only a disadvantage to criminals or those who actively oppose the state. I'd say, yes, but only if the state is using all that information to do what you want it to. This isn't always so, especially for those who don't fit so well in the one-size-fits-all mold that states tend to stamp out for their citizens.
And that leads us to another concept that goes along with legibility: simplification. The world is a very complex place, full of distracting details, most of which we ignore. This is true for individuals in day to day life, but even more so for states. There are a great many details that a state simply cannot afford to be interested in. What it needs is a synopsis that contains just the information which is significant to its projects. Who's to say what's significant? Well, therein lies a whole range of problems.
When I was the foreman of a crew of electricians, my boss frequently grew frustrated with my usual answer to his questions, which was: "it depends". He wanted a simple yes or no, but often the situation just wasn't that simple and my point was that if he was willing to let a little more information through his filters he'd be able to make better decisions.
Having acquired a measure of legibility, modern states set about a number of huge development fiascos.
But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind . The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivizations in Russia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia are among the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.
It is not so difficult to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.
Scott identifies four elements, the combination of which leads to such tragedies. The first is the simplification that comes with legibilitiy.
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. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.
When I first encountered this it was another new concept for me, but when you look at it closely, it is nothing more than the religion of progress. In fact, I've rarely seen that faith so clearly described:
High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rational organized city, village, or large farm was one that looked regimented and orderly in the geometric sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization: the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.
By themselves, though, legibility, simplification, and an ideology like high modernism are not enough to do much real harm. A couple more elements are necessary for that.
The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.
A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.
In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarians state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.
But why is it that these four elements, when combined, have led to disaster?
Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowances for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.
Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisations in the face of unpredictability. ...I contrast the high-modernist views and practices of city planners and revolutionaries with critical views emphasizing process, complexity, and open-endedness.
...I attempt to conceptualize the nature of practical knowledge and to contrast it with more formal, deductive epistemic knowledge. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience, serves as a useful portmanteau word for what I have in mind. Here I should acknowledge my debt to anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order. Their understanding of the term "mutuality" covers some but not all of the same ground I mean to cover with "mētis."
Scott acknowledges that from today's perspective, a critique of the failings of high modernism is like a kind of quaint archaeology. Central planning has long since fallen out of favour.
...States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.
There is much fertile ground today for the sort of thing Scott was talking about. Take out high modernism, substitute in the current ideological fad and combine it with legibility, simplification, a generous dash of authoritarianism and an unsuspecting populace and away we go. We must remember, when getting rid of a bad government, not to usher in something even worse. Right wing populism, techno optimism and eco-modernism come to mind as ideologies that I would really rather not have forced on me or my community. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have already done enough harm. All these are certainly just as uncritical, unskeptical, and unscientifically optimistic as high-modernism.
Scott goes on for 9 more chapters with a plethora of examples illustrating his thesis. This review discusses them in some detail, if you're interested. It also has some criticism of Scott's ideas, which I think is probably somewhat unfair.
In several places in the book Scott mentions Jane Jacobs, whose activism against, and critique of, modern urban planning I had not previously been introduced to. Here is a biographically article about her that is well worth reading.
This is the last book review I'll be doing for a while. Next time I'll finally get around to talking about what I see as lying ahead of us—the slow and tortuous collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, many people I run into think I am being needlessly dramatic. They would say that business as usual is still in pretty good shape and has a long future ahead of it. I'll begin with why I think that is the single biggest lie we are being told these days.