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October 21, 2007


Eric Silverman

The fulcrum of Scott’s argument revolves around his criticism of “High Modernism”, which was quickly defined as the “muscle-bound” faith in and support of the “mastery if nature (including human nature” and the belief in the design of social organization corresponding to this taming of natural laws. There are many points that are easy to agree with in Seeing Like a State, mainly that more often than not, those who rule have little to no interaction with those who are affected by their policies. The ideas that high-level bureaucrats in Russia, Brazil, and Tanzania tried to introduce in the name of conformity and progress were illogical and/or destructive. These historically sound cases are very hard to argue with, and make his point very salient.
I take an issue with the general conclusions he draws out of these specific cases. He argues that the state must allow for “metis”, Scott’s term for local knowledge and tradition. To an extent, I agree with him; the idea that a state must coerce civil society into adapting a policy that is conducive to human nature is a paradox. The Tanzanians were adaptive, resourceful people who understood their land much better than the State did. But what would happen if we transported his argument to the southern United States in the 1960s? Segregation and racism are certainly forms of local knowledge and tradition, does that make it wrong for the state intervene? There are ways of understanding the world that are destructive and harmful, and it is metis that buttresses and informally institutionalizes those customs. I am afraid that Scott’s ideal government would lead to various communities in monologue as opposed to a large community in dialogue.
If the State takes this amorphous form of an ideologically ambivalent institution, there are less incentives to adapt economically or evolve morally and philosophically. Scott does an amazing job of highlighting the necessity of the State to remain flexible and responsive to the needs of its citizens. It is a slippery slope, however, trying to discern which forms of metis are useful, and which ones need to be discarded. I think it is appropriate for the State to be the instigator of change and the motivator of individuals to evolve. It just needs to be able to discern between the growing pains of society and its all-out teenage rebellion.

Adriana Gomez

Well said, Silverman! I like your mentioning that “those who rule have little to no interaction with those who are affected by their policies.” That is exactly the point that I found most important of J. Scott’s argument.

I will say that I most definitely agree with Scott’s perspective. The point in which I particularly agree with him in is when he mentions that most of the failed “utopian movements” have been led by someone with “progressive reform” ideas. The Progressives were people who had their own idea of how governments should work. They wanted to change every corruption or every slight inequality through their means and when those means were put into practice they would cause a catastrophe.

When Scott mentions the three “elements” that come together to create a “tragic episode of development” (which are: 1. the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society. 2. Unrestrained use of power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs. 3. A weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” P 89) I will agree that, for as benevolent of an intention that a progressive may have, there are certain crucial factors that cannot be foreseen. Those factors are usually highly behavioral, unpredictable and can lead to chaos if not corrected and accounted for. As J. Scott puts it, “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” P. 11. Once a population has been gravely affected by new policies, there is less chance that it can fight back or exercise any kind of power democratically against the individual(s) in power. The assumption that was being made in Julius Nyerere’s “social experiment” with Tanzania was that collectivization of agriculture would lead to a boosted production. There was no effective second plan if this policy were to fail (which it did), and Nyerere found that, though he had only wanted to abolish the negative aspects of capitalism through socialism, he did not account for the fact that he could devastate an economy if his plans should fail.

What I am really trying to get at is that either way one sees it, those in power have little if any incentive to empathize with the people whose policies they are arranging and whose lives they might gravely affect. Sometimes policies are implemented to try to improve the living conditions the people OR sometimes those in power want to exploit a defenseless population (“monopolizing force,” as Scott puts it in page 88) that is made docile by a lack of political power on behalf of a leader “guilty of hubris” or violence and coercion (p.324). Though a lot of the time people like Julius Nyerere have had benevolent intentions, an exaggerated expectation for a non-gradual reform is likely to have devastating consequences that are not accounted for in the initial planning of the scheme.

Zack Simon

I first want to mention that this was my favorite read of those that we have been assigned so far. As a non-econ./pro-socio-anthropology student myself, I found this topic of societal planning to be most fascinating as a subject outside of strict political economics reading. James Scott makes intriguing illustrations of “high-modernist” philosophies that support the centrally-planned, socially-engineered society. I believe that the critique of this “high-modernist” design is just as relevant today as it was almost 10 years back when Seeing Like A State was published. I see a great parallel between societal planning by the State and societal planning within the market led by today’s ever-intrusive corporatism. Scott goes to great lengths to demonstrate the State’s and municipal planners’ penchant to collect statistics and superficial observation fueled by bureaucratic procedure, and to simplify—that is, categorize—its constituency into manageable groups in order to govern with tighter organization.

Both the State, in the form of a centralized organization, e.g. the U.S. census bureau, and the ideological municipal planners are charged with simplifying their constituency in order to legitimate its inhabitants of their territory as citizens and subjects of their jurisdiction and general management. As with the example Scott provides with his demonstration of history on German forestry, there is great danger in over-simplifying and “scientifically” micro-managing organically evolving subjects. Doing so makes these subjects more vulnerable to unpredictable events that may threaten their existence or evolve them into something that may impede their particularly engineered goal. In analogy to the case of the forests, centralized planning risks oversimplifying niche groups by not recognizing their characteristics that distinguish them. Especially in today’s culture, de-diversifying is seen as taboo and the modernist scientific approach, as in marketing, threatens what could be seen as “organic evolution” of society—a society not coerced into the precepts of a utopia that is anyway unrealistic. Applying the notion of ‘metis’ that preservers “local knowledge” should be done carefully though, as it is so abstract as to be misconstrued toward any party’s argument. There is inevitably much contested boundary between the application of what is “local knowledge” and what is regarded as “State knowledge.” However difficult it is to identify these two notions that sound empirically distinct but are likely controversial, dialogue between the community and central planning is the greatest promise of successful political, economic, and social integration within a community and society at-large.

Serena Yang

James Scott emphasizes the importance of metis, or local knowledge and tradition, throughout his book, but I think basically the state’s problem is an overall lack of knowledge. Economists want to assume that individuals have perfect knowledge (which is something I think Friedman falls prey to), but here Scott transposes this idea into the political realm so that it is the state who, following high-modernist and scientifically teleological reasoning, assumes that it has perfect knowledge about the people, about the culture, about everything. But just as Friedman’s argument falls flat, Scott points out how states have failed in this respect as well.

Nevertheless, Eric raises the point that sometimes the state does have more information than the people, as in the case of segregation and racism. However, when it comes to moral issues, it’s hard to say who is right and who is wrong. Forty years later, it’s easy to say that the state was right to enforce integration, especially when the majority opposed it, because it is right morally. But, again, who is to say what is right and what is wrong? Segregation and racism have modern-day parallels in controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion, which have polarized people to opposite ends of the spectrum. Furthermore, black rights were ignored for over a hundred years before the people fueled the movement for equal rights and the state just limped to catch up. So again, the issue of information and knowledge comes into play and we have to ask ourselves if state decisions on morality are the right ones.

So instead of moral issues, I think the state should turn to more developmental issues. Although Scott is “uncritically admiring of the local, the traditional, and the customary” (p. 7), when it comes to issues like health, the local and the traditional do not know better than the state. We see this especially in Africa, not only with the AIDS epidemic, but also with general issues of healthcare; a certain amount of tension exists between traditional medicinal practices and modern medicine. In this realm, I think the state has a legitimate reason to interfere and coordinate.

Indeed, just as Soviet history is an example of state failure to the extreme, history has also shown that the state can prove indispensable to a country’s economic development, coordinating and protecting domestic industries. I mentioned this in my post on Friedman as well, but I think it’s still a relevant point: the success of the Asian Tigers was heavily reliant upon government action. Thus, even though Scott emphasizes the means used by states to achieve their ends, I think ultimately precedence is also important. States who set off on new paths, such as Soviet Russia and their attempt at socialism, have little to base their experiments on because no one in history has attempted what they’re trying to do, so they’re more likely to make mistakes. But when states are merely attempting to industrialize, there are historical examples to which they can look, so their chances of success are higher. In this way, history can serve as a guide for state action, showing states what has worked in the past and what has not.

Jennifer Miller

Eric, Adriana and Zack have really hit the nail on the head in discerning Scott’s ultimate critique of social engineering by state power structures. I agree with Eric, Scott reveals an important point about states needing to pay more attention to the unique knowledge and needs of their citizens. And I would add that Scott, like Friedman, sees state control as threatening to individual and political freedom. Scott describes how the state or social architects plan reality for a generic “standardized citizen” (346), which means that any pretense of democracy is null, as all needs and unique desires have no political sphere to be expressed.
I find Scott’s writing very interesting. He intersects ideas of an ecologist, anarchist, and a free-market fundamentalist (libertarian?). I appreciate his reoccurring metaphors of nature, particularly of the managed forest. He describes that people, as subjects of state led political and economic development, have been “abstracted”, molded and simplified in order to be productive in the same manner of the trees of a state managed mono-crop forest. Scott admires the diverse and complex forest, and the equally complex social order that ensures its own survival through evolutionary intricacies that collapse without subtleties of human scale knowledge. The state, in his mind, is like a bull in a china shop of organic social and economic survival.
These ecological metaphors about the futile nature of a trying to “control a whirlwind” (i.e. the social world) are appealing to me. But, the intrigue fades as I consider, as Eric did, the downfalls of glorifying local knowledge and tradition (“metis”) when confronting deeply entrenched social hierarchies such as racism. We have seen that market competition and innovations (on their own) do not take care of the problem racism. Scott prefers a social Darwinist approach to solving social problem, “the long term survival of certain human institutions…is something of a tribute to their adaptability” (354).

For Scott, socialism was and is, the biggest failed “high modernist” scheme. Knowledge was held hostage by the state that was hungry for power and motivated by a dangerous religious fervor of creating a better society. Scott’s argument is solid and vividly accurate, but he fails (at least in the chapters we read) to convince me that state intervention is always a nightmare, and that capitalism does not manifest the same monopolized power structures. My take home point from his work is that no matter what political affiliation we profess, we should not try to create a perfect solution- but instead be motivated by humbler ideals that look less like religious fervor.

Kinzie Kramer

As a Conservation and Resource Management Major, this book’s Part 1: State Projects of Legibility and Simplification obviously intrigued me the most because it explained man’s obsessive ordering of nature. And I think the key to Seeing Like a State is to see in simplistic forms, or try to make society and all its functions neat and easy, which is entirely impossible. The government that tries to do good always oversimplifies, and ends up doing evil by ruining people’s natural resources, culture, language, etc.; as Scott says “radically simplified designs for social organization seem to court the same risk of failure courted by radically simplified designs for natural environments.”
To further prove the simplified nature point, take the United States Forest Service’s initial management technique. The technique was a neat and ordered arrangement of the forest into rows and sections, where some of the timber was harvested and some was not, in a somewhat perfect scientific, sustainable harvesting scheme. This technique was developed in Germany and transposed onto United States forests. Unfortunately this scheme did not work at all here because the US forests were so different from German forests, and forest density and timber yields simultaneously crashed. Neat and ordered nature does not exist, and should not be sought after.
I wholeheartedly concur with Scott that the same goes for society. For example, language is something that states have tried to keep simple by imposing one language for the state, but that has never worked. People become enraged that their cultural heritage is being erased, people rebel and refuse to speak the “chosen” language (ie people from/in Barcelona only speak their dialect and refuse to speak Spanish, even though Barcelona is apart of Spain), and the state’s scheme is ruined because people see it as “evil.”
The ordering of nature and society is just one of Scott’s four elements leading to the “tragic episode of development;” the other three are high-modernist ideology, the authoritarian state, and incapacitated civil society. I agree with Eric and must take issue on the value of local knowledge, as pertaining to high-modernist ideology. Of course people tend to believe in “scientific” data, and there can obviously be problems if this is the only type of information that is valued, but where then do you draw the limit at who has a say? And who legitimizes that knowledge? It is a complicated question, but not every local knowledge-holder can be valued to the same extent because then large-scale dialogue and cooperation would be hindered. At some point there has to be a limit, but there must be balance between various types of knowledge.
Lastly, reading what Scott has to say about tragic episodes of development being affected by incapacitated civil society, I agreed with all of his examples, but wonder what Scott would say about the emerging global civil society today? True, still in many states civil society is weak. But international non-governmental organizations, trans-boundary corporations, and multiple other actors are reaching across state boundary lines and forming a global civil society that can be strong even in places where the domestic civil society is weak. I am thinking of environmental examples here- people who traditionally don’t have a strong civil society and are getting toxic waste dumped on them are now the focus of international attention because environmental groups and human rights groups made their plight an international problem. The global civil society strengthened these people’s cause and were able to stop full-fledged disaster. I just wonder if Scott might change his mind, or if he thinks that the global civil society will fall apart.

Shane Barclay

Scott’s argument that “a human community is surely far too complicated and variable to easily yield its secrets to bureaucratic formulae” is meticulously articulated and supported. From Tanzania to Russia to the United States, Scott provides ample evidence of how governments have repeatedly failed to live up to their word in providing certain improvements to their respective states.

Scott’s argument is convincing, but what is to be done to change this trend? Numerous examples are given of governments that wanted to do well but ended up doing harm. The decisions that these governments made were exhaustively planned and theoretically simulated, but never realized. Scott offers limited theories, although he does offer a general mindset to have when trying to progress a society. He favors an approach of negotiating circumstance—there should no set of blind rules that allow for only one narrow method, but rather a framework with which to work within. He equates this approach to language, which has its parameters but also necessitates constant flow and improvisation.

The implementation of such an approach would be difficult at best. It could not be imposed on the people, for that would violate the very gist of the method, so it would have to be provided by a sort of gentle nudging of the people in a certain direction. Nonetheless, it would have to be a convincing nudge because, as Nyerere of Tanzania puts it, these desired communities “can only be established with willing members; the task of government is not to try and force this kind of development, but to explain, encourage, and participate.” The government still has a large role, but perhaps in these cases its largest role is to lead by example.

William Chen

Scott examined the relationship between the State and its people, and noticed the collapse of government programs directed at completely bringing people under government ideals. For example, the Great Leap Forward in China led to devastation instead of the well-being of its people. Even though Mao Zedong saw that China could surpass the West with only 5 years if the rural areas were mobilized to help industrialize, the reality was that as more resources were getting poured into urban areas, the rural areas were becoming more destitute. As mentioned in the first post, Scott believes that central idea of all the previous failed governments is the notion of "High Modernism," the idea that through careful planning and eventual progression of the community towards those ideals. However, this idea does not take into account the importance of "metis," what Scott defines as something that communities can only attain through experience rather than theory. Ultimately, Scott believes that although it's not necessary to completely take government out of the picture, one should realize that government programs may have "good" intentions, but "bad" results for its people.

Hye Jin Lee

I found this read very interesting and astonishing. Especially, in chapter 9, the discussion of mētis was very unexpected and new in a read about political economy. I found the explanations of activities that require long-time practice and experience such as music, biking, and many other activities fit well to explaining the necessity of mētis for formation of society. The political life needs to integrate this uniqueness of individuals as they each hold value and meaning to their society.

As Jennifer concluded how the book failed to convince her that “state intervention is always a nightmare,” I think Scott was trying to argue that the state intervention can be a nightmare in certain cases. He tried to convince the readers that certain kinds of state interventions, “authoritarian and utopian,” as he writes, are the evils of human freedom. The state based solely on power-holding itself, that tends to dismiss the individual knowledge is the evil to human-beings. I agree with Eric, Kinzie, Jennifer that state should definitely consider local knowledge and the uniqueness of each of its citizen.

As Scott mentions, there are costs that outweigh the benefits of a homogeneous society. One technique that emerged after he wrote the book is lean production. He does not go into detail about mass production but the emergence of lean production, I think, is an excellent example of how the society is in need of uniqueness of individualism. To be short, lean production integrates the technology of mass production but still holds the flexibility of craftsmanship and makes the most use of workers’ knowledge as they work in teams and learn from each other as they experience production in long-terms.

Nick Nejad

I really like Scott's point. I see two different types of government situations. On the one side, there is government intervention to protect human rights. These are ideals which everyone wants for themselves, are unchanging, and apply to everyone- they do not need to be earned. In fact, I think situations where all three of these rules apply are where government does the most good. We are all happy for government to protect our rights as humans, to protect us from crime, from fires, from utility monopolism. These situations have all three rules. People mentioned the idea of racism, yet it said right plain and clear in our Constitution that "all men are created equal." Government's job is to enforce these rights, and so they should have been doing something to prevent racism as it was happening.

Government starts to do wrong when it tries to expand beyond beyond these areas. To steal a quote I like: “I am no longer interested in systems of organization. Organized institutes tend to produce patternized prisoners of a systematized concept, and the instructors are often fixed in a routine. Of course what is worse is that by imposing the members to fit a lifeless pre-formation, their natural growth is blocked.” It does not make sense to allow one entity to dictate how an entire population should do something. Situations are always changing and have local differences. To make a blanket rule on how to do something will naturally block individual creativity and will prohibit the best situations in individual communities.
And it seems the biggest government disasters are ones where they misalign the incentives. Every day I realize more and more how important incentives are. To steal another quote:
“One of my favorite cases about the power of incentives is the Federal Express case. The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can't be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work. And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.”
Someone quoted Nyerere of Tanzania as saying that desired communities ““can only be established with willing members; the task of government is not to try and force this kind of development, but to explain, encourage, and participate.” I think the best way to encourage people to make this development in through the power of incentives.

But government has power, and it can and does try to expand its power. And so they come up with these elaborate ideas that sound good, which have noble aims, but which just don’t do any good and usually have high frictional costs. Either the incentives are wrong, or someone else is suffering while someone else profits, or the rules are too restrictive. Either way, I think if you look at yourself as an individual, and think which rules you like, it will be the ones which protect your rights as a human and provide you with an essential service. Where government starts becoming a nuisance is when they make you do something or act in a certain way when you have a personal, or local, knowledge of something better.

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