Monday, 29 May 2017

A Review of Seeing Like a State by James C Scott

This is another very-good book from everyone's favourite lefty-Oakshott* (Oaknot?). The last book of his I read was ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ and this is just as good.

'Seeing Like a State' re-tells the story of some of the 20th centuries biggest mass-fuckups and links them together as examples of 'high modernism', an aesthetic of hyper-rational centrally planned large-scale change driven by city-based  bureaucracies and authoritarian powers which claims to be directed towards improving and enhancing the systems it interacts with but, Scott argues, is much more about making those systems accessible to and measurable by, central power, even it vastly reduces their effectiveness.

When the thing being changed is the agricultural system of an entire nation, 'vastly reducing its effectiveness' means death.

Scott’s primary case studies are what he calls the 'High-Modernist City', based mainly around the ideas and designs of Le Corbusier, Soviet Communism, especially forced collectivisation, and Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania, which is basically the less-systematically-headfucked version of Soviet Collectivisation with a lower bodycount.

It’s a long but light, dense but clear, intricately-written but rationally arranged, deeply researched and calmly delivered book. Scott can write.

One of the most persuasive elements of Scott’s book is his criticism of the invisible madness of hyper-rationalism. A perfectly logical and superficially clear and 'scientific' aesthetic and doctrine which is perfectly accurate, within its own self-contained abstraction of the world, and totally, utterly unaware of how that abstraction is going to smash into reality like a glass meteorite.

It reminded me a lot of Ian McGilchrist’s "The Master and His Emissary" which I think Scott would probably like a lot. His description of the logic of cities almost fades into neuroscience or philosophy. This is Scott on High-Modernism;

The Dark Twin

"The planned city, the planned village, and the planned language (not to mention the command economy) are, we have emphasized, likely to be thin cities, villages and languages. They are thin in the sense that they cannot reasonably plan for anything more than the few schematic aspects of the inexhaustibly complex activates that characterize "thick" cities and villages. one all-but-guaranteed consequence of such thin planning is that the planned institution generates an unofficial reality - a "dark twin" - that arises to perform many of the various needs that the planned institution fails to fulfil. Brasilia, as Holston showed, engendered an "unplanned Brasilia" of construction workers, migrants, and those whose housing and activities were necessary but were not foreseen or were precluded by the plan. Nearly every new, exemplary capital city has, as the inevitable accompaniment of its official structures, given rise to another, far more "disorderly" and complex city that makes the official city work - that is virtually a condition of its existence. That is, the dark twin is not just an anomaly, an "outlaw reality"; it represents the activity and life without which the official city would cease to function. The outlaw city bears the same relation to the official city as the Parisian taxi driver's actual practices bear to the Code routine."

And this is McGilchrist on brain hemispheres;

"The right hemisphere needs not to know what the left hemisphere knows, for that would destroy its ability to understand the whole; at the same time the left hemisphere cannot know what the right hemisphere knows. From inside its own system, from its own point of view, what it believes it has 'created' appears complete. Just because what it produces is in focus and at the centre of the field of vision, it is more easily seen. This is one reason we are so much more aware of what it contributes to our knowledge of the world.

The left hemisphere cannot deliver anything new direct from 'outside', but it can unfold, or 'unpack' what it is given Its very strength - and it contains enormous strength, as the history of civilisation demonstrates - lies in the fact that it can render explicit what the right hemisphere has to leave implicit, leave folded in. Yet that it also its weakness. The clarifying explicitness needs to be reintegrated with the sense of the whole, the now unpacked or unfolded whatever-it-may-be being handed back to the domain of the right hemisphere, where it once more lives. This turns out to be a problem,..."

That isn’t a perfect quote to explain the similarity I’m seeing but McGilchrists book is huge so that’s the best you are getting right now.

Scott’s 'dark twin' also reminds me a lot of his views on the relationship between the agrarian state and the Zomia in 'The Art of Not being Governed', two spaces which oppose each other, on ordered and 'transparent', one 'opaque' and (apparently) disordered, yet both linked and almost requiring the other to define themselves and shape their identity.

As with 'Not Being Governed' Scott delivers another tribute to the crafty intelligence of the Peasant. The Parable of the Ants is a good example;

"Growing in the compound of the house in which I lived was a locally famous mango tree. Relatives and acquaintances would visit when the fruit was ripe in the hope of being given a few fruits and, more important, the chance to save and plant the seeds next to their own house. Shortly before my arrival, however, the tree had become infested with large red ants, which destroyed most of the fruit before it could ripen. It seemed nothing could be done short of bagging each fruit. Several times I noticed the elderly head of household, Mat Isa, brining dried nipah palm fronds to the base of the mango tree and checking on them. When I finally got around to asking what he was up to, he explained it to me, albeit reluctantly, as for him this was pretty humdrum stuff compared to our usual gossip. He knew that the small black ants, which had a number of colonies at the rear of the compound, were the enemies of the large red ants. He also knew that the thin, lancelike leaves of the nipah palm curled into long, tight tubes when they fell from the tree and died. (In fact, the local people used the tubes to roll their cigarettes.) Such tubes would also, he knew, be ideal places for the queens of the black ant colonies to lay their eggs. Over several weeks he placed dried nipah fronds in strategic places until he had masses of black-ant eggs beginning to hatch. He then placed the egg-infested fronds against the mango tree and observed the ensuing week-long Armageddon. Several neighbours, many of them skeptical, and their children followed the fortunes of the ant war closely. Although smaller by half or more, the black ants finally had the weight of numbers to prevail against the red ants and gain possession of the ground at the base of the mango tree. As the black ants were not interested in the mango leaves or fruits while the fruits were still on the tree, the crop was saved."

I could make a very slight criticism that in Scotts books the Peasant is _always_ a near super-heroic figure bursting straight from the black earth imbued with tricks and courageous wisdom with which to fool the dumb authoritarian bureaucrat sent to requisition grain for the parasitical city-dwellers, but that would be a little unfair.

Only a little though. Scott does mention some of the situations which provoked the lust for redeeming high-modernism but he never actually states outright that sometimes poor people can be fucking dumb. Sometimes they are dumb.

For particular interest for my RPG-culture readers is one of Scotts final chapters on what he calls 'Metis'. I would recommend that anyone into what's called the 'Old School' scene should pick up the book even if just to read this chapter alone;

"Metis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practiced adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner. The skills of metis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Metis resists simplification into deductive principals which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote."

This quote in particular pleased me because it brings in the necessary anarchism of people who deal with fire, which matches with what I read in 'Fire on the Rim' by Stephen Pyne;

"Red Adair's team, which has been hired worldwide to cap well-head fires, was a striking and diagnostic case. before the Gulf War of 1990, his was the only team with any appreciable "clinical" experience, and he could set his own price. Each fire presented new problems and required an inspired mixture of experience and improvisation. We can imagine, at almost opposite ends of a spectrum, Adair on one hand and a minor clerk performing highly repetitive steps on the other. Adair's job cannot, by definition, be reduced to a routine. he must begin with the unpredictable - an accident, a fire - and then devise the techniques and equipment (from an existing repertoire, to be sure, but one invented largely by him) required to extinguish that fire and cap that well. The clerk, by contrast, deals with a predictable, routinized environment that can often be ordered in advance and down to the smallest detail. Adair cannot simplify his environment in order to apply a cookie-cutter solution."

We could go a lot deeper into this, the idea of metis and the glass cage in particular would be interesting to me. Does the creation of a large, efficient, bureaucratic state necessarily shape a population who will be poor citizens?

Obedient, authoritarian, excellent at rationalising the excise of power but rarely questioning it, more closely related to the state than to each other, more interested in the state than each other (quite reasonably since it has the larger effect on their lives), lonely, alienated, since the state cannot provide the means of de-alienation and good at keeping out of trouble.

Does the state destroy the capacity of its subjects to be citizens?

Anyway, this is a fragment, go read the book.

*The man himself gets a little bit of a sly stab right at the end of the page notes;

"It is in fact impossible for most modern readers to take in the vast complacency with which Oakshott regards what the past has bequeathed to him in its habits, practices, and morals without wondering if Jews, women, the Irish, and the working class in general might not feel as blessed by the deposit of history as did this oxford don."


  1. The paragraph about "The planned city, the planned village, and the planned language [...]" it is why, for me, overly logical and structural magic always feels sterile and unnatural. I am not speaking about game mechanics - those can be as simple or as complex as they wish - but about magic that rigidly follows its own mechanical system without any sense of excess or unpredictability that leads to sense of wonder.

  2. Why, it's almost as if nincompoops from far away can't do things better than regular people who live nearby. If Harvard and Yale have taught me anything, it's that nincompoops from far away are much better than me, here, now.

    Has anyone showed Harvard and Yale this book?

  3. Really enjoyed this review. As a public health researcher/practitioner, I think, as a field, we constantly struggle to balance the overly-planned, bureaucratic, and authoritarian nature of setting best practices for health, and the often colossally complex ways in which the health of communities and populations shifts and changes. If there's one thing I've learned so far, it's that there's always an unexpected (or sometimes expected, but unplanned for) response to setting health-related policies within a larger system of law and policy.

    On another related note, I find the concept of "metis" particularly interesting. It's similar to "intuition" but with slightly more grounded structure, but as you've stated, not enough structure to be formalized anywhere in any form. I've found that this is the key to being a good martial artist, having trained for a little over 20 years now. Learning martial arts starts within a formalized system, just as an apprentice in a trade would learn the formal mechanics of the trade. But eventually, the formality of a system becomes constraining, and the apprentice or student needs to develop a sense for all of the things that fall in between the given structure.

    1. Interestingly, Scott gives a lot of examples of Metis from the medical world. Often experienced doctors diagnosing things through strange, subconscious or lateral methods.