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Seeing Like a State

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

James C. Scott
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Seeing Like a State
    Book Description:

    Compulsoryujamaavillages 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12878-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    This book grew out of an intellectual detour that became so gripping that I decided to abandon my original itinerary altogether. After I had made what appeared to be an ill-considered turn, the surprising new scenery and the sense that I was headed for a more satisfying destination persuaded me to change my plans. The new itinerary, I think, has a logic of its own. It might even have been a more elegant trip had I possessed the wit to conceive of it at the outset. What does seem clear to me is that the detour, although along roads that...

  5. Part 1 State Projects of Legibility and Simplification

    • 1 Nature and Space
      (pp. 11-52)

      Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. The great advantage of such tunnel vision is that it brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification, in turn, makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.

      The invention of scientific forestry in late eighteenth-century Prussia and...

    • 2 Cities, People, and Language
      (pp. 53-84)

      An aerial view of a town built during the Middle Ages or the oldest quarters (medina) of a Middle Eastern city that has not been greatly tampered with has a particular look. It is the look of disorder. Or, to put it more precisely, the town conforms to no overall abstract form. Streets, lanes, and passages intersect at varying angles with a density that resembles the intricate complexity of some organic processes. In the case of a medieval town, where defense needs required walls and perhaps moats, there may be traces of inner walls superseded by outer walls, much like...

  6. Part 2 Transforming Visions

    • 3 Authoritarian High Modernism
      (pp. 87-102)

      All the state simplifications that we have examined have the character of maps. That is, they are designed to summarize precisely those aspects of a complex world that are of immediate interest to the mapmaker and to ignore the rest. To complain that a map lacks nuance and detail makes no sense unless it omits information necessary to its function. A city map that aspired to represent every traffic light, every pothole, every building, and every bush and tree in every park would threaten to become as large and as complex as the city that it depicted.¹ And it certainly...

    • 4 The High-Modernist City: An Experiment and a Critique
      (pp. 103-146)

      In Mumford’s epigraph to this chapter, his criticism is directed at Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s Washington in particular and at baroque urban planning in general.¹ Greatly amplified, Mumford’s criticism could be applied to the work and thought of the Swiss-born French essayist, painter, architect, and planner Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who is better known by his professional name, Le Corbusier. Jeanneret was the embodiment of high-modernist urban design. Active roughly between 1920 and 1960, he was less an architect than a visionary planner of planetary ambitions. The great majority of his gargantuan schemes were never built; they typically required a political resolve and financial...

    • 5 The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis
      (pp. 147-180)

      Lenin’s design for the construction of the revolution was in many ways comparable to Le Corbusier’s design for the construction of the modern city. Both were complex endeavors that had to be entrusted to the professionalism and scientific insight of a trained cadre with full power to see the plan through. And just as Le Corbusier and Lenin shared a broadly comparable high modernism, so Jane Jacobs’s perspective was shared by Rosa Luxemburg and Aleksandra Kollontay, who opposed Lenin’s politics. Jacobs doubted both the possibility and the desirability of the centrally planned city, and Luxemburg and Kollontay doubted the possibility...

  7. Part 3 The Social Engineering of Rural Settlement and Production

      (pp. 181-192)

      Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society–to vaccinate a population, produce goods, mobilize labor, tax people and their property, conduct literacy campaigns, conscript soldiers, enforce sanitation standards, catch criminals, start universal schooling–requires the invention of units that are visible. The units in question might be citizens, villages, trees, fields, houses, or people grouped according to age, depending on the type of intervention. Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated, and monitored. The degree of knowledge required would have...

    • 6 Soviet Collectivization, Capitalist Dreams
      (pp. 193-222)

      The master builders of Soviet society were rather more like Niemeyer designing Brasília than Baron Haussmann retrofitting Paris. A combination of defeat in war, economic collapse, and a revolution had provided the closest thing to a bulldozed site that a state builder ever gets. The result was a kind of ultrahigh modernism that in its audacity recalled the utopian aspects of its precursor, the French Revolution.

      This is not the place, nor am I the most knowledgeable guide, for an extensive discussion of Soviet high modernism.¹ What I aim to do, instead, is to emphasize the cultural and aesthetic elements...

    • 7 Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetics and Miniaturization
      (pp. 223-261)

      The ujamaa village campaign in Tanzania from 1973 to 1976 was a massive attempt to permanently settle most of the country’s population in villages, of which the layouts, housing designs, and local economies were planned, partly or wholly, by officials of the central government. We shall examine the Tanzanian experience for three reasons. First, the campaign was by most accounts the largest forced resettlement scheme undertaken in independent Africa up to that time; at least 5 million Tanzanians were relocated.¹ Second, documentation of the villagization process is abundant, thanks to the international interest in the experiment and the relatively open...

    • 8 Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity
      (pp. 262-306)

      The necessarily simple abstractions of large bureaucratic institutions, as we have seen, can never adequately represent the actual complexity of natural or social processes. The categories that they employ are too coarse, too static, and too stylized to do justice to the world that they purport to describe.

      For reasons that will become apparent, state-sponsored highmodernist agriculture has recourse to abstractions of the same order. The simple “production and profit” model of agricultural extension and agricultural research has failed in important ways to represent the complex, supple, negotiated objectives of real farmers and their communities. That model has also failed...

  8. Part 4 The Missing Link

    • 9 Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Mētis
      (pp. 309-341)

      We have repeatedly observed the natural and social failures of thin, formulaic simplifications imposed through the agency of state power. The utilitarian commercial and fiscal logic that led to geometric, monocropped, same-age forests also led to severe ecological damage. Where the formula had been applied with the greatest rigor, it eventually became necessary to attempt to restore much of the forest’s original diversity and complexity-or rather, to create a “virtual” forest that would mimic the robustness and durability of the “prescientific” forest.

      The planned “scientific city,” laid out according to a small number of rational principles, was experienced as a...

    • 10 Conclusion
      (pp. 342-358)

      The great high-módernist episodes that we have examined qualify as tragedies in at least two respects. First, the visionary intellectuals and planners behind them were guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mortals and acting as if they were gods. Second, their actions, far from being cynical grabs for power and wealth, were animated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition-a desire with a fatal flaw. That these tragedies could be so intimately associated with optimistic views of progress and rational order is in itself a reason for a searching diagnosis. Another reason lies in the completely...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 359-432)
  10. Sources for Illustrations
    (pp. 433-434)
  11. Index
    (pp. 435-445)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 446-446)