Seeing like a State

James C. Scott

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Long and verbose, this book was good but dragged on a bit. Scott describes an important concept: top-down, high-modernist planning often doesn't work. Local customs work better, but because the state wants to create a 'legible' view of it's constituents, it removes the local customs. The ideas are similar to Taleb's ideas.


The legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.

I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability.

Thus, plants that are valued become “crops,” the species that compete with them are stigmatized as “weeds,” and the insects that ingest them are stigmatized as “pests.” Thus, trees that are valued become “timber,” while species that compete with them become “trash” trees or “underbrush.” The same logic applies to fauna. Highly valued animals become “game” or “livestock,” while those animals that compete with or prey upon them become “predators” or “varmints.”

The great simplification of the forest into a “one-commodity machine” was precisely the step that allowed German forestry science to become a rigorous technical and commercial discipline that could be codified and taught. A condition of its rigor was that it severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant, all variables except those bearing directly on the yield of the selected species and on the cost of growing and extracting them. As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying “outside the brackets” returned to haunt this technical vision.

The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.

In turn, this shorthand functioned, as did Beckmann’s Normalbaume, as not just a description, however inadequate. Backed by state power through records, courts, and ultimately coercion, these state fictions transformed the reality they presumed to observe, although never so thoroughly as to precisely fit the grid.

Rainfall may be said to be abundant or inadequate if the context of the query implies an interest in a particular crop. And a reply in terms of inches of rainfall, however accurate, would also fail to convey the desired information; it ignores such vital matters as the timing of the rain.

There is, then, no single, all-purpose, correct answer to a question implying measurement unless we specify the relevant local concerns that give rise to the question. Particular customs of measurement are thus situationally, temporally, and geographically bound.

The proponents of this vision well understood that what was at stake was not merely administrative convenience but also the transformation of a people: “The uniformity of customs, viewpoints, and principles of action will, inevitably, lead to a greater community of habits and predispositions.” The abstract grid of equal citizenship would create a new reality: the French citizen.

Like the “exotic” units of weights and measures, local land tenure practice is perfectly legible to all who live within it from day to day. Its details may often be contested and far from satisfactory to all its practitioners, but it is completely familiar; local residents have no difficulty in grasping its subtleties and using its flexible provisions for their own purposes. State officials, on the other hand, cannot be expected to decipher and then apply a new set of property hieroglyphs for each jurisdiction. Indeed, the very concept of the modern state presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that is legible and hence manipulable from the center.

It would have been impossible in such a community to associate a household or individual with a particular holding on a cadastral map. The Norwegian large farm (gard) posed similar problems. Each household held rights to a given proportion of the value (skyId) of the farm, not to the plot of land; none of the joint owners could call a specific part of the farm his own.

As long as common property was abundant and had essentially no fiscal value, the illegibility of its tenure was no problem. But the moment it became scarce (when “nature” became “natural resources”), it became the subject of property rights in law, whether of the state or of the citizens.

The most significant instance of myopia, of course, was that the cadastral map and assessment system considered only the dimensions of the land and its value as a productive asset or as a commodity for sale. Any value that the land might have for subsistence purposes or for the local ecology was bracketed as aesthetic, ritual, or sentimental values.

The shorthand formulas through which tax officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they frequently have the power to transform the facts they take note of.

Whatever their conduct, their fluency in a language of tenure specifically designed to be legible and transparent to administrators, coupled with the illiteracy of the rural population to whom the new tenure was indecipherable, brought about a momentous shift in power relations. What was simplifying to an official was mystifying to most cultivators.

Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy.

Universal last names are a fairly recent historical phenomenon. Tracking property ownership and inheritance, collecting taxes, maintaining court records, performing police work, conscripting soldiers, and controlling epidemics were all made immeasurably easier by the clarity of full names and, increasingly, fixed addresses.

In this respect, a unique language represents a formidable obstacle to state knowledge, let alone colonization, control, manipulation, instruction, or propaganda. Of all state simplifications, then, the imposition of a single, official language may be the most powerful,

The invention, elaboration, and deployment of these abstractions represent, as Charles Tilly has shown, an enormous leap in state capacity—a move from tribute and indirect rule to taxation and direct rule. Indirect rule required only a minimal state apparatus but rested on local elites and communities who had an interest in withholding resources and knowledge from the center. Direct rule sparked widespread resistance and necessitated negotiations that often limited the center’s power, but for the first time, it allowed state officials direct knowledge of and access to a previously opaque society.

The grouping of synoptic facts necessarily entails collapsing or ignoring distinctions that might otherwise be relevant.

All Normalbaume in a given size range are the same; all soil in a defined soil class is statistically identical; all autoworkers (if we are classifying by industry) are alike; all Catholics (if we are classifying by religious faith) are alike. There is, as Theodore Porter notes in his study of mechanical objectivity, a “strong incentive to prefer precise and standardizable measures to highly accurate ones,” since accuracy is meaningless if the identical procedure cannot reliably be performed elsewhere.

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.

  • The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society,
  • The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.
  • The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.

What is high modernism, then? It is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I.

To the degree that the future is known and achievable— a belief that the faith in progress encourages—the less future benefits are discounted for uncertainty. The practical effect is to convince most high modernists that the certainty of a better future justifies the many short-term sacrifices required to get there.

And indeed it is the ideology par excellence of the bureaucratic intelligentsia, technicians, planners, and engineers. The position accorded to them is not just one of rule and privilege but also one of responsibility for the great works of nation building and social transformation.

The logic of this rigid segregation of functions is perfectly clear. It is far easier to plan an urban zone if it has just one purpose. It is far easier to plan the circulation of pedestrians if they do not have to compete with automobiles and trains. It is far easier to plan a forest if its sole purpose is to maximize the yield of furniture-grade timber. When two purposes must be served by a single facility or plan, the trade-offs become nettlesome. When several or many purposes must be considered, the variables that the planner must juggle begin to boggle the mind.

For Le Corbusier, “human happiness already exists expressed in terms of numbers, of mathematics, of properly calculated designs, plans in which the cities can already be seen.”8 He was certain, at least rhetorically, that since his city was the rational expression of a machine-age consciousness, modern man would embrace it wholeheartedly.

Functional simplification demands that the rationale for the square as a public visiting room be designed out of Brasília.

One striking result of Brasília’s cityscape is that virtually all the public spaces in the city are officially designated public spaces: the stadium, the theater, the concert hall, the planned restaurants. The smaller, unstructured, informal public spaces—sidewalk cafes, street corners, small parks, neighborhood squares—do not exist.

In some important respects, Brasília is to São Paulo or Rio as scientific forestry is to the unplanned forest. Both plans are highly legible, planned simplifications devised to create an efficient order that can be monitored and directed from above. Both plans, as we shall see, miscarry in comparable respects.

Even if we allow for the initial simplifying premise of Brasília’s being an administrative city, there is nonetheless a bland anonymity built into the very structure of the capital. The population simply lacks the small accessible spaces that they could colonize and stamp with the character of their activity, as they have done historically in Rio and São Paulo.

How successful was Brasília as a high-modernist, utopian space? If we judge it by the degree to which it departs from cities in older, urban Brazil, then its success was considerable. If we judge it by its capacity either to transform the rest of Brazil or to inspire a love of the new way of life, then its success was minimal. The real Brasília, as opposed to the hypothetical Brasília in the planning documents, was greatly marked by resistance, subversion, and political calculation.

A formative insight in Jacobs’s argument is that there is no necessary correspondence between the tidy look of geometric order on one hand and systems that effectively meet daily needs on the other. Why should we expect, she asks, that well-functioning built environments or social arrangements will satisfy purely visual notions of order and regularity?

Jacobs recounts a revealing incident that occurred on her mixeduse street in Manhattan when an older man seemed to be trying to cajole an eight-or nine-year-old girl to go with him. As Jacobs watched this from her second-floor window, wondering if she should intervene, the butcher’s wife appeared on the sidewalk, as did the owner of the deli, two patrons of a bar, a fruit vendor, and a laundryman, and several other people watched openly from their tenement windows, ready to frustrate a possible abduction. No “peace officer” appeared or was necessary.

Lenin’s general treatment of the working class in What Is to Be Done? is strongly reminiscent of Marx’s famous depiction of the smallholding French peasantry as a “sack of potatoes”—just so many “homologous” units lacking any overall structure or cohesion.

If we consider the vanguard party, as Lenin did, to be a machine for bringing about the revolution, then we see that the vanguard party’s relation to the working class is not much different from a capitalist entrepreneur’s relation to the working class. The working class is necessary to production; its members must be trained and instructed, and the efficient organization of their work must be left to professional specialists.

The models for Lenin’s optimism were precisely the great human machines of his time: industrial organizations and large bureaucracies.

In more technical language, such goals can be approached only by a stochastic process of successive approximations, trial and error, experiment, and learning through experience. The kind of knowledge required in such endeavors is not deductive knowldge from first principles but rather what Greeks of the classical period called métis, a concept to which we shall return. Usually translated, inadequately, as “cunning,” métis is better understood as the kind of knowledge that can be acquired only by long practice at similar but rarely identical tasks, which requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances. [This is how people get good at anything]

It is to this kind of knowledge that Luxemburg appealed when she characterized the building of socialism as “new territory” demanding “improvisation” and “creativity.”

How do we explain the decided colonial preference for plantation agriculture over smallholder production? The grounds for the choice can certainly not have been efficiency. For almost any crop one can name, with the possible exception of sugarcane, smallholders have been able historically to out-compete larger units of production. Time and time again, the colonial states found, small producers, owing to their low fixed costs and flexible use of family labor, could consistently undersell state-managed or private-sector plantations. The paradox is largely resolved, I believe, if we consider the “efficiencies” of the plantation as a unit of taxation (both taxes on profits and various export levies), of labor discipline and surveillance, and of political control.

The great achievement, if one can call it that, of the Soviet state in the agricultural sector was to take a social and economic terrain singularly unfavorable to appropriation and control and to create institutional forms and production units far better adapted to monitoring, managing, appropriating, and controlling from above.

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.

The principles of standardization, central control, and synoptic legibility to the center could be applied to many other fields; those noted in the accompanying table are only suggestive. If we were to apply them to education, for example, the most illegible educational system would be completely informal, nonstandardized instruction determined entirely by local mutuality. The most legible educational system would resemble Hippolyte Taine’s description of French education in the nineteenth century, when “the Minister of Education could pride himself, just by looking at his watch, which page of Virgil all schoolboys of the Empire were annotating at that exact moment.”

Wheat lends itself to extensive large-scale farming and mechanization. One might say that wheat is to collectivized agriculture what the Norway spruce is to centrally managed, scientific forestry. Once planted, it needs little care until harvest, when a combine can cut and thresh the grain in one operation and then blow it into trucks bound for granaries or into railroad cars... The red raspberry bush, on the other hand, requires a particular soil to be fruitful; it must be pruned annually; it requires more than one picking, and it is virtually impossible to pick by machine.

In contrast to Soviet collectivization, Tanzanian villagization was not conceived as an all-out war of appropriation. Nyerere made a point of warning against the use of administrative or military coercion, insisting that no one should be forced, against his or her will, into the new villages. And in fact the disruptions and inhumanities of Nyerere’s program, however serious for its victims, were not in the same league as those inflicted by Stalin.

Nyerere was fond of contrasting the loose, autonomous work rhythms of traditional cultivators with the tight-knit, interdependent discipline of the factory. Densely settled villages with cooperative production would move the Tanzanian population toward that ideal.

The modern planned village in Tanzania was essentially a point-by-point negation of existing rural practice, which included shifting cultivation and pastoralism; polycropping; living well off the main roads; kinship and lineage authority; small, scattered settlements with houses built higgledy-piggledy; and production that was dispersed and opaque to the state.

In quiet and untroubled times, it seems to every administrator that it is only by his efforts that the whole population under his rule is kept going, and in this consciousness of being indispensable every administrator finds the chief reward of his labor and efforts. While the sea of history remains calm the ruler administrator in his frail bark, holding it with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion, the boat hook no longer reaches the moving vessel, and suddenly the administrator, instead of appearing a ruler and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man. —Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

What these planners carried in their mind’s eye was a certain aesthetic, what one might call a visual codification of modern rural production and community life. Like a religious faith, this visual codification was almost impervious to criticism or discontinuing evidence.

Redesigning the lines and boxes in an organizational chart is simpler than changing how that organization in fact operates. Changing the rules and regulations is simpler than eliciting behavior that conforms to them.

The visual aesthetic of miniaturization seems significant as well. Just as the architectural drawing, the model, and the map are ways of dealing with a larger reality that is not easily grasped or manageable in its entirety, the miniaturization of high-modernist development offers a visually complete example of what the future looks like.

Its rigorous attention to productionist goals casts into relative obscurity all the outcomes lying outside the immediate relationship between farm inputs and yields. This means that both long-term outcomes (soil structure, water quality, land-tenure relations) and third-party effects, or what welfare economists call “externalities,” receive little attention until they begin to affect production.

Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some considerable degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.

When the first European settlers in North America were wondering when and how to plant New World cultivars, such as maize, they turned to the local knowledge of their Native American neighbors for help. They were told by Squanto, according to one legend (Chief Massasoit, according to another), to plant corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear.

The Native American maxim, by contrast, is vernacular and local, keyed to common features of the local ecosystem; it inquires about oak leaves in this place, and not oak leaves in general. Despite its specificity, it travels remarkably well. It can be deployed successfully anywhere in temperate North America where there are oak trees and squirrels. The precision provided by the observed sequence almost certainly gains a few days of growing time while not appreciably raising the risk of planting before a hard frost.

Along these lines, the early nineteenth-century mathematician, Adolph Quetelet, turned his scientific eye to the mundane problem of when the lilacs would bloom in Brussels. He concluded, after much rigorous observation, that the lilacs burst into bloom “when the sum of the squares of the mean daily temperature since the last frost added up to (4264C) squared.” Knowledge this certainly is! Given the techniques for making the required observations, it is probably quite accurate. But it is hardly practical. Quetelet’s playful formula alerts us to a hallmark of most practical, local knowledge: it is as economical and accurate as it needs to be, no more and no less, for addressing the problem at hand.

If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experience to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.

Mētis, with the premium it places on practical knowledge, experience, and stochastic reasoning, is of course not merely the now-superseded precursor of scientific knowledge. It is the mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our (experienced) intuition and feel our way.

Mētis knowledge is often so implicit and automatic that its bearer is at a loss to explain it.

What is the status of such insight or intuition? We might call these skills the “tricks of the trade” (in the nondeceptive sense) that most “crafty” practitioners acquire. Notice that virtually all the experienced judgments described in these anecdotes could be verified by tests and measurements.

But the epistemic alternative to mētis is far slower, more laborious, more capital intensive, and not always decisive.

Occasionally there are formal institutions that seem almost perfectly tailored to the collection and exchange of practical information, such as the veillées of nineteenth-century France. The veillee, as its name implies, was a traditional pattern of gathering practiced by farm families during winter evenings, often in barns to take advantage of the warmth generated by the livestock and thus save on fuel... Given the fact that each member there possessed a lifetime of interested observation and practice in which every family paid for the consequences of its agricultural decisions, the veillee was an unheralded daily seminar on practical knowledge. [This sounds so fun]

Epistemic knowledge, though never separate in its practice from mētis, has provided us with a knowledge of the world that, for all its darker aspects, few of us would want to surrender. What has proved to be truly dangerous to us and to our environment, I think, is the combination of the universalist pretensions of epistemic knowledge and authoritarian social engineering.

If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were. [Summary of all bad top-down planning]

One might, on the basis of experience, derive a few rules of thumb that, if observed, could make development planning less prone to disaster.

  • Take small steps.
  • Favor reversibility.
  • Plan on surprises.
  • Plan on human inventiveness.

The long-term survival of certain human institutions—the family, the small community, the small farm, the family firm in certain businesses—is something of a tribute to their adaptability under radically changing circumstances.

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