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October 21, 2007


Vera Bersudskaya

Scott makes an articulate and convincing argument about the dangers of government intervention. He warns us that even if the government aims to eradicate evils and improve society, it might end up doing more harm than good. His criticism of high-modernists, as blindly devoted to mechanization, standardization and large scale manufacturing/farming/operating is appealing and just. However, his examples of the disasters that resulted from government attempt to reorganize society (collectivization in Russia, villagization in Tanzania and Ethiopia) are taken from largely undemocratic states. Many problems that have resulted in those places can be avoided in a democratic setting. Scott states in his conclusion: “One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land.” Thus, I do not think that this book is meant to argue for as little state intervention as possible, as opposed to Friedman. Scott emphasizes the importance of collaboration between state officials designing policies and the constituents who are on the receiving end. It is impossible for the government to be perfectly informed about things that are going on at different places at specific times. That is why the policies it enacts have to be flexible and amendable so they can be modified in case that is needed.
But historical examples also prove that government can be effective in improving the overall conditions of society. The thirty glorious years provide a great example of government taking care of its citizens (unemployment insurance, healthcare benefits, retirement plans etc.) and improving their standards of living. The governmental policies in the Scandinavian countries today are also largely efficient in providing beneficial services.
It will be impossible for the state to achieve a utopia, but it will still be able to improve conditions. And I think that Scott aims not so much at denouncing government intervention, but the idea that government can achieve perfection.
I really liked Kinzie’s argument about NGOs. In today’s complex global world, governments will be even less capable of being informed about everything. Thus, most of these specialized organizations are designed to work on specific issues.

Kenichiro Nakahara

As Professor DeLong described in his question for this week, this text by James Scott was by far the most straightforward (making it easier to understand?) material that we have read in this course so far. The first impression I had after reading this work was that he may have had a similar view against Capitalist society like to that of George Orwell who we covered a couple weeks back. Orwell described that capitalism was evil and that in place, Socialism was needed but he wasn’t sure if that would work either. Scott takes a position that in Capitalist society, the ones with power tend to exploit the ones who do not have power (like workers). He feels that his “three formulas of disaster” apply in many capitalist societies and he is against these “high modernist” visions.

When I read this part, it rang a bell on what was being discussed in our section yesterday. Milton Friedman was criticized (sort of) in our class that he had far too idealistic view with a viewpoint of a rich white man and was thinking of a model that would work if the world was filled with “thousands of Friedmans”. I feel that although Scott and Friedman have the same view that is against government and support collective purposes and destinies, Scott takes a stance that an ideal society that Friedman has in his mind would not work. Throughout the book he exemplifies this through the models of the Soviet Union, Tanzania, and the US and how all of these have failed to succeed what they had promised to their citizens.

If Scott were to view today’s society, I think that as William has discussed above, add the example of China and how although the government attempted “rapid development” like the ones Japan and Korea took, they did this at the stake of its own citizens often overlooked today by the super high skyscrapers in Beijing. It is understandable that the Chinese government did not do all this to exploit its citizens but rather to bring overall wealth to all its peoples. However, in reality this has not been the case and I feel that this is what Scott refers to that the government (and sometimes the World Bank…) could have good intentions but come out with disastrous results, making them evil. One thing we must remember is that Scott, unlike Friedman feels that the government should not be completely taken out of the picture but should have minimal function with more freedom to its people, similar to Polanyi.

Vaclav Burger

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.

Anthony Yates

Everyone who posted so far did an excellent job of bringing out Scott's major point. As with the failure of the scientific forests which he hammers (sledgehammers more like...again, and again, and again) home, his continual reference back to the nucleus of his argument allows him to present a point that is lucid, well-defended by example, and argued in clear, convincing prose.

The position he takes---consideration for mētis, and the four recommendations in his conclusion on page 345 (take small steps, favor reversibility, plan on surprises, plan on human inventiveness)---is so incredibly moderate it is hard to take issue with any of them. But it is in this overwhelming moderation that I have a problem.

His critique of Le Corbusier was far and away the most interesting part of the book to me. Perhaps this is because Le Corbusier is such an intriguing character. The man is zealot of technocracy. He has no consideration of Scott’s mētis; of the idealist architect, he writes:

“Integral, finally, to Le Corbusier’s ultramodernism was his repudiation of tradition, history, and received taste…he warned, ‘We must refuse even the slightest consideration to what is: to the mess we are in now.’”

Now the changes Le Corbusier proposes are meticulously and numerically crafted on the basis that the perfect civilization can be assembled as a puzzle. This is plainly false. It is clear to us that man cannot be confined into a rigid 10 meter square, and will naturally spill out beyond the boundaries of his allotted share and disrupt the precision-tuned mathematical order. That Scott finds little redeeming quality in his spirit of relentless idealism veritably jumps off the page; he writes on Le Corbusier’s “Plan:”

“At the very least, we are in the presence of a dictatorship of the planner; at most, we approach a cult of power and remorselessness that is reminiscent of fascist imagery…Le Corbusier sees himself as a technical genius and demands power in the name of his truths.”

In contrast, he is full of praise for Jane Jacobs, a fellow critic of Le Corbusier. Her theory seems, in general, that the way in which we live is so utterly complex and interactive that we cannot possibly speculate great changes without upsetting the established balance. And that seems to be the position she adheres to beyond writing; of her political efforts, Scott writes:

“She was also a political activist involved in many campaigns against proposals for zoning changes, road building, and housing development she thought ill-advised.

What do we see in both Scott and Jacobs? Steadfast, unswerving moderation on the surface. But it goes deeper than that, and therein my real grievance lies. They are both critical of the failures involved in sweeping, scientifically planned, government enforced measures, but lack concreteness in resolutions of their own. It is easy to criticize those who work in bold measures like Le Corbusier. When they fail, they do so spectacularly and with drastic consequences. The good I see in Scott is his potential to temper the kind of fanatical techno-progressivism which Le Corbusier endorses into a realistic mold which society might strive to attain. His recognition of the human factor, neglected in scientific planning, is vital to any cause. However, there is the bad, and it is failure to show how integration of mētis into the process of advancing society can realistically occur.

Amitha Harichandran

Scott’s metaphor of the forest is superb, and provides an excellent example for his argument. Just as the attempt to increase order in the forest only led to destruction, Scott believes that the state attempts to create a utopia through their ‘high modernist’ tactics only lead to social destruction. He argues that although the state often thinks it knows best, it can never comprehend the individuality and small nuances, the local knowledge, that truly make the society. Therefore in their attempt to simplify and generalize, the state fails to address key elements, which often leads to results which are indeed the opposite of the initial intentions.
As Eric and Serena point out, there are certain instances when it is necessary for the state to intervene, as they truly do have more knowledge than the people. When the issue at hand is over moral and ethical rights, it is the state’s responsibility to step in. However, the hard question here becomes, what exactly is right? Serena makes a good point; we can now look back on integration and applaud the state, but when we look at today’s controversial issues, it is hard to say what is truly right.
In addition, while governments do fail to address local knowledge, the need for leadership and managements is undeniable. Too often, when left in the hands of the population, greed and selfishness take over, resulting in the tragedy of the commons. Therefore, some sort of regulation is required to keep society from self-destructing.
As Nick points out, the state’s intervention is necessary and welcomed to protect “our rights as humans”, however it “starts to do wrong when it tries to expand beyond these areas.” Therefore, Scott makes a valid argument, however he fails to acknowledge the necessity for the state in developing and protecting its society.

Rowena Tam

His view is very much in line with last weeks reading Friedman. Although I would not say that I agree much with Friedman’s view, I do agree with Scott’s. Scott points out specific instances to highlight what the state has done wrong, but also provides a hopeful future. I completely agree with Scott in the sense of high modernism and anarchical determination to “use unbridled state power for its achievement.” He is very right in pointing out that a society without utopian aims are not worth looking at, but it is the individuals that are willing to overrule the ethics and morals of the citizens that is wrong. The anarchical rulers have the dogma that “the end will justify the means” and it is in that idea that utopian socialists veer off the track.
I think that there is much hope for individuals to continue striving for utopia. Because like Scott mentions, it is through this aim for utopia that we are constantly making improvements. But it is also vital to remember that society must also be educated and strong enough to push and pull at the government to ensure that the government is working to improve society as it wants to be changed.

Brenda Castillo

I definitely found Scott’s Seeing Like a State very interesting. To further support what the people in this discussion have mentioned I strongly agree why it is so dangerous that “those who rule have little to no interaction with those who are affected by their policies.” By not having interaction with the people the government rule, they limit themselves to a “tunnel vision” that does not allow the government to see the broader picture that is the complexities of society. Having a government that wants to plan absolutely all of society’s activities and organization to ease the difficult task of managing whole populations would dehumanize the members of society as simple ‘things’ subject to the needs of the government.
As Adriana mentioned earlier, I can see that the government’s plans and ideas of simplifying society are well-intentioned but trying to be Progressive about how to go about ‘planning’ could be disastrous. There are reasons why societies run the way they do and being Progressive could inhibit people from taking that broad point of view that Scott argues. For example, there are certain factors ( just like the insects bushes, and other animals that are crucial in the growth of a forest, using Scott’s analogy, that are crucial to the successful and bountiful growth of a forest) , however invaluable they might seem to the government, that are needed in a society. These factors can only induce growth and stability by the natural disorganizing that they grow in. Therefore, having an Utilitarian stance on societal organization induces “dangers [due to] dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value (in the case of the forest analogy, the single element would be the maximization of wood resources)”. In the case of the notion of ‘metis,’ communities have a ‘local knowledge’ that is interconnected with the various activities and organizations of those communities and that have allowed stability, which the government might see as unnecessary or might not have taken this element into consideration. However, if this ‘local knowledge’ was to be manipulated by government it would create chaos and, what people in this discussion have mentioned, it would create a monologue rather than a dialogue between communities.

Cindy Yu Hsin Chou

Scott is both an anarchist and social psychologist in a sense, as he examines the state view, and the historical context (he wrote the book in 1998) in which he wrote the book allows him to examine what went wrong in WWI and II, imperialism and decolonization, the Cold War, and various interventions in the past twenty years (i.e. Iraq) in retrospect, and gives him an advantage in providing a more complex argument over other writers we have read in the class, as he can. My classmates have already highlighted Scott’s forest metaphor and the need “metis”, and the gaps between intention and result. Scott’s arguments are relevant not only for his historical examples in the Soviet, Brazil, Tanzania, etc., but also for today, where the West still sees itself as supreme and has some sense of the “white man’s burden”. America has carried the espoused ideology of spreading freedom and democracy over the past century and beyond, and to this day, it has not learned from its mistakes—a classic example being the intervention in Iraq.
Here, then, is where I have a problem with Scott’s argument: why, when governments have failed again and again, do they continue blindly on with the “intention” of doing good to other societies, as clearly, they are not being welcomed? I find it to hard to accept Scott’s basic premise in assuming that governments can intervene in another state with a pure mindset such as that of spreading freedom, as inevitably, the result they produce will somehow benefit them. Take the analogy of two people who become friends – inevitably, we all benefit each other one way or the other, whether it is through moral support, network, future business possibilities, etc. It is the same with two states. Thus when Julius Nyerere goes into Tanzania and decides to consolidate everyone into a single village, is his mindset really that the quality of life for the local people will improve? Perhaps, but there is to more to it. For him, he might consider it to be a win-win situation: the locals can get education, shelter, have access to roads and better education and technology, but moreover, we can benefit too! They’ll thank us, and in the long run for educating them, freeing them, providing them infrastructure, and find ways to repay us in the future. Such is human nature, and Scott, who is an anarchist, should know that. If a state TRULY wanted to do another state well, it would simply give them free food and shelter—perhaps then, they’ll start being thanked. No; a state’s intentions are not that simple, and moreover, if a state really had good intentions, they would examine their mistakes in history and not repeat the same mistakes again and again…and again.

Christy Fox

James Scott's Seeing Like A State is an accurate portrayal of the tensions between local populations and their respective states. Most recently, attention has been given to local traditions and perceptions and the role, or lack thereof, these localities play in national governments. The interplay of state and local people is vital in understanding how culture and ideas move through the systems of government. Scott argues that the state, almost naturally, will ignore local traditions for the sake of organization, like in the case of permanent last names where a man was forced to create a last name for organizational purposes because his village tradition of naming yourself after your father, grandfather, etc. was too irrelevant for the state. It is this lack of consideration for the local traditions and perspectives, what he calls metis, that he points out in being a problem contributing to societies tensions.

He points out that those in power tend to either completely dismiss this metis or attempt to help, but ultimately fail (like in Julius Nyerere in Tanzania). So the question is, when is it beneficial for states to intervene and to what extent?

He lays out some important recommendations that ultimately advise states to be adaptable to the needs of their citizens. The respect of metis is key but he does recognize the position of the state. About the idea of moving towards utopia, like Tam points out, he argues that this constant strive for utopia stirs intellectual thought and generates new social ideas. This gives us the potential to move towards a more inclusive society.

Stephen Deng

James Scott’s piece is a great look at how good intentions can go wrong. Like many posters before me, his articulation on the metis was very thought provoking. I think one of the finer examples in the book is the work-to-rule strikes that trade unionists employ. His example talks about how workers would follow only the procedures outlines in the rules and consequently, the factory would fail. This demonstrates “how actual work processes depend more heavily on informal understandings and improvisations than formal work rules” (310). Along with the example of a failed “scientific” forest, these examples are reminders that the social underpinnings of society are often unknown but extremely important.

Eric brings up a point about government response in a situation where local tradition and knowledge may be in hindsight, unethical or unjust. I like how Nick responded citing that we have a Constitution which ensures that such incompatibilities do not lead to leniency towards human rights violations. States need these overseeing policies which ensure rights.

Though Scott states that the government should adhere to a fluid and flexible framework upon which changes can be made with local traditions in mind, I do not believe he would agree with sacrificing human rights in the name of respecting local tradition. In fact, it is when local opinion sways the edicts put forth in the Constitution that rights are put into question and morally is threatened. This difference between state planning and state protection is important. One is dangerous when overemphasized; the other is dangerous when underutilized.

China is an excellent example of when high modernist planning has failed. I’m not just talking about Mao’s era when China starved as farmers were ordered to produce iron instead of grain. I go back to China every year and I can see a clear divide between the “aesthetically pleasing” and theoretically efficient China, and the reality of the situation on the local level. In Shanghai, the great leaps towards modernization and wealth has left an incredible income gap and social loss. As city planners build skyscrapers and bridges at a rate which changes maps every year, local people are driven further and further towards the bottom of the social ladder. Through a system of economic development plans, Shanghai bustles with new money. However, without attention to local needs and views, the average Shanghainese is poorer than ever in a city that is increasingly un-Chinese.

Like in the Soviet Union and Tanzania, Chinese leaders wished to develop and modernize their nation. China is particularly economically successful in the present situation. However, an inorganic plan towards economic growth means that today, the most modernized city in China is one that has abandoned the non-elite and is growing in an increasingly foreign direction.

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