Seeing Like a State

How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

James C. Scott New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998 Review by John Kreidler, San Francisco Foundation

Why is it that the Twentieth Century has witnessed an abundance of large-scale utopian plans for social and economic development that have accomplished, contrary to their lofty objectives, immense human suffering and massive environmental degradation? In his book, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott examines in depth several monumental utopian plans that have yielded tragic results: collective farms in the Soviet Union, compulsory village resettlements in Tanzania and Ethiopia, new cities based on the urban planning dictums of Le Corbusier, and the practice of monocultural agriculture. In his introduction, Scott indicates that he also wanted to include an analysis of the shortcomings of the Roosevelt-era Tennessee Valley Authority, but felt constrained by space limitations.

In essence, Seeing Like A State is a book about the complexity of organic systems, be they human or environmental, and the hubris of those who intervene in them in immense and simplistic ways. A fundamental tenet of systems thinking is that all natural systems are highly complex and resistant to precise prediction. In approaching any systems intervention, whether it is an adjustment in the prime interest rate or prescribing a drug to a cancer patient, the intervener's (economist or doctor) prospect of achieving favorable results depends largely on a thorough understanding of the complex inner workings of the system (the economy or the human body). Throughout Scott's book are examples of planners and political leaders who were ignorant of the practical interrelationships in society or nature.

In each of his case studies of state-initiated social or environmental utopian engineering, Scott finds a “…pernicious combination of four elements…” that are a sure path to disaster:

  • The administrative ordering of nature and society: In each of Scott's examples, he documents how states sought to simplify and reduce complex social or environmental systems to a few measurable components that promoted the state's ability to appropriate resources and achieve political control. In Tanzania, for example, the complexity and fragmentation of traditional patterns of tribal life and agriculture made it difficult for government to assert political control, appropriate resources, and achieve production goals. In the mid 1970s, the nation forcibly resettled more than five million people into planned villages and attempted to impose industrial modes of agriculture.
  • High-modernist ideology: This ideology asserts that “…the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws…” will lead to expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and the mastery of nature, including human nature. Aside from these utopian aims, Scott also detects a common aesthetic to high-modernist projects—an aesthetic that rejects the visual chaos of natural and human systems in favor of stridently linear landscapes. Perfectly manicured forests in Germany and the sterile, regimented design of planned cities in India and Brazil are cited as examples.
  • Authoritarian government: In Scott's view, it almost goes without saying that no democratically constituted society would choose to subject itself to the onerous administrative simplifications and high-modernist ideology embedded in these utopian schemes. Only an authoritarian government can impose these radical utopian programs.
  • A prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist: In most instances, utopian plans have been imposed on societies that have been drained by civil war, colonial oppression, or economic collapse.

Ultimately, Scott finds that all of the state-imposed utopian programs are characterized by a style of technical thinking and analysis that is captured by the Greek word, “techne.” “Techne” is a type of knowledge that can be expressed as hard-and-fast rules, for example, the universal and abstract principles of mathematics. In the early twentieth century and up to the present, attempts have been made by social scientists (e.g. Frederick Taylor) and political theorists (e.g. Karl Marx) to reduce human behavior to simple abstract principles, which authoritarian regimes have then used to plan their utopian programs. While Scott does not completely dismiss the validity of “techne,” he asserts that all of his utopian cases are lacking in practical common sense, which the Greeks called “metis.” “Metis” is a thinking process that recognizes the inherent unpredictability of complex human or natural systems and, in responding to crises or opportunities, depends on common sense improvisation rather than abstract five-year plans.

At the conclusion of his book, Scott offers a few rules of thumb for those who would presume to plan on behalf of society or nature:

  • Take small steps: We cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance.
  • Favor reversibility: Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
  • Plan on surprises: Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen.
  • Plan on human inventiveness: Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight (metis) to improve on the design.

In comparison to the titanic utopian plans described by Scott, the arts in the U.S. have never witnessed an intervention of significant scale. One might wonder, then, whether Seeing Like a State would be of use to the average arts grantmaker. While authoritarian government and a prostrate civil society are not characteristic of this country, it is arguable that some funding strategies in the arts have been driven by high-modernist ideology and the need of grantmakers to achieve administrative simplification. Moreover, Scott's rules for modest interventions based on metis could be installed on the board room wall of any funding organization.

Aside from the question of this book's relevance to grantmakers, Seeing Like a State is compelling reading for anyone who has ever wanted a critique of utopian development schemes. My only regret is that all of Scott's cases are in foreign countries, an omission that could have been rectified if he had followed his urge to include a chapter on the Tennessee Valley Authority.

John Kreidler, San Francisco Foundation