Saturday, February 13, 2010

Notes on Seeing Like a State

At American Leftist, Richard Estes calls James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State "eccentric" and "pathbreaking". Perhaps it is eccentric—certainly I'd read nothing like it before and found its perspective highly illuminating. As such, I call it also brilliant and necessary. As the title suggests, Scott explores the ways in which the State sees things, indeed how it must see things in order to function at all. In the opening chapter, he explains the concept of "legibility": the state desires to make its subjects or citizens, and its territory, more legible, more readable, reducible. To illustrate what he means, he opens with an example describing how the 18th c. Prussian state viewed the forest as a source of revenue, and only as a source of revenue, and how scientific forestry developed out of this narrowing of vision, while all other uses of the forest were ignored, including the vast majority of flora and fauna native to the forest, as well the "vast, complex, and negotiated social uses of the forest for hunting and gathering, pasturage, fishing, charcoal making, trapping, and collecting food and valuable minerals as well as the forest’s significance for magic, worship, ritual, and so on". This translates into other areas of state-making. Mapping is more precise, the population is more definable, taxing more easily collected and tracked. Much is missed, lost, but the result is “a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation” which is a necessary pre-condition for any sort of governing, for good and bad.

From here, Scott goes on to discuss what he calls "authoritarian high modernism"; this is, as Richard puts it, "a form of modernism marked by an extreme tendency to impose technocratic solutions upon a populace reduced to fungibility". Lenin and Le Corbusier emerge as villains in the book, largely because of Scott's choice of examples: enforced collectivization in the Soviet Union and Le Corbusier's design schemes and the influence of his ideas, for example in the planned city of Brasilia (incidentally, if I was previously somewhat ambivalent about Lenin and his pre-Stalin legacy, this book leaves me in no doubt that I am not a fan; but more on that later). In this context, Scott stresses that high modernism was a widely held outlook among elites—planners, designers, and statesmen—in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, but elites were often thwarted in their attempts to impose their grandiose ideas on how cities and agricultural concerns should be organized (in their conception, cities as they are are too messy, not rational enough; agriculture should be more "scientific", in the narrow sense of scientific understood by such technocrats). For example, "the belief in huge, mechanized, industrial farms" was common among both American and Russian agronomists, who kept in close contact, "working together to create a new world of large-scale, rational, industrial agriculture", the Americans in particular were thrilled to not have to work around any political process:
the Russians tended to be envious of the level of capitalization, particularly in mechanization, of American farms while the Americans were envious of the political scope of Soviet planning.
After exploring this particular set of relationships, he expands the point to note a general "'elective affinity' between authoritarian high modernism and certain institutional arrangements":
High-modernist ideologies embody a doctrinal preference for certain social arrangements. Authoritarian high-modernist states, on the other hand, take the next step. They attempt, and often succeed, in imposing those preferences on their population. Most of the preferences can be deduced from the criteria of legibility, appropriation, and centralization of control. To the degree that the institutional arrangements can be readily monitored and directed from the center and can be easily taxed (in the broadest sense of taxation), then they are likely to be promoted. The implicit goals behind these comparisons are not unlike the goals of pre-modern statecraft. Legibility, after all, is a prerequisite of appropriation as well as of authoritarian transformation. The difference, and it is a crucial one, lies in the wholly new scale of ambition and intervention entertained by high modernism.
I could explore in great detail the different aspects of the book, but I'm chiefly interested in the implications on real people caught in these schemes (Scott: "The transformation of peripheral nonstate spaces into state spaces by the modern, developmentalist nation-state is ubiquitous and, for the inhabitants of such spaces, frequently traumatic"), schemes which rarely turned out the way the planners had intended, because they inevitably missed something, didn't understand something about what they were eliminating (weren't as scientific as they thought), didn't count on people ("The pretense of authoritarian high-modernist schemes to discipline virtually everything within their ambit is bound to encounter intractable resistance."). I'm interested in what gets lost. Indeed, though Scott makes several asides observing that much that we think of as good is also a function of the sort of narrowing of vision he describes, he focuses heavily on what gets missed and the effects on actual people. For example, with respect to collectivization, he notes that
The concentration of population in planned settlements may not create what state planners had in mind, but it has almost always disrupted or destroyed prior communities whose cohesion derived mostly from non-state sources. The communities thus superseded—however objectionable they may have been on normative grounds—were likely to have had their own unique histories, social ties, mythology, and capacity for joint action. Virtually by definition, the state-designated settlement must start from the beginning to build its own sources of cohesion and joint action. A new community is thus, also by definition, a community demobilized, and hence a community more amenable to control from above and outside.
Since a key reason I am interested in such matters has to do with figuring out how a better world might emerge given what we know about past failures, as well as successes, Scott's footnote to this point is highly pertinent:
I believe that this logic of social demobilization is the key element in the commonly observed fact that, at the beginning of industrialization, the declining rural community is often more likely to be a source of collective protest than is the newly constituted proletariat, notwithstanding standard Marxist reasoning to the contrary. Resettlement, whether forced or unforced, often eliminates a prior community and replaces it with a temporarily disaggregated mass of new arrivals. It is ironically just such a population that may, for the time being, more closely resemble the "potatoes in a sack" than the peasantry of the bocage described by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire.
Similarly, it has been further observed, by several others, that it's no accident that where successful revolutions have taken place, it has been largely due to the peasantry, their gains almost immediately undermined in favor of the implementation of some theory or other. Thus I've been reading about anarchism and about subsistence strategies and peasant resistance. And of course feminism, which incidentally reminds me that Scott's counter-examples to Lenin and Le Corbusier are, respectively, Rosa Luxemburg and Jane Jacobs. I think it is no accident that they were women. As ever, more to come.

[By the way, Richard Estes' post, which I link to above, is an application of Scott's book to the phenomenon of Olympic villages and facilities, specifically this year's winter games in Vancouver. His observations are interesting and relevant:
the Olympics endures as one of the sanctuaries of high modernist urban aspirations, and this is evident in the 2010 Winter Olympics about to commence in Vancouver. Vancouver has a deserved reputation as a socially vibrant place, and, yet, it is precisely this vibrance that must be eradicated in order for the Olympics to go forward.
With Scott's book in mind, in particular his example of Baron Haussmann's reconstruction of 19th c. Paris, Richard notes the "attempt to sanitize Vancouver and the surrounding areas of [every aspect of social unpredictability and transgression] in order to make it suitable for the event to go forward" and the "strict controls [placed] upon athletes, spectators, and, implicitly, the people who work within the Olympic Village and specific competitive sites". It's worth reading the whole thing.]

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Blogger BDR said...

I can provide an e-book version of Seeing Like a State.

Those of you who know me can go to my place and send me an email or you can email Richard - I trust who he trusts with the alias and password necessary.


February 13, 2010 4:09 PM  

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